By Richard Rosenblatt
If nothing else, the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational (G1) could turn into be a bettor’s bonanza.
A field of 12 durable but far from dynamic horses is likely for the race at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 25, with no super standout among them.
Favorites (Arrogate, Gun Runner) and second-betting choices (City of Light, Mucho Gusto) won the first four editions of the 1 1/8-mile Pegasus World Cup, but this year’s race looks wide open.
And that means some sharp handicapping could result in winning combinations — an exacta, or trifecta, or other exotics – that produce huge paydays.
Here’s how the race is shaping up:
The original list of invitees included defending champ Mucho Gusto and Charlatan, who has crossed the finish line first in all four of his races. They likely would have been the favorites, but the Bob Baffert trainees won’t be running: Mucho Gusto was retired last week with a minor “tissue injury” and Charlatan is being pointed to the $20 million Saudi Cup next month.
“The thing I like about the Saudi race is it’s a one-turn mile-and-an-eighth and Charlatan is so fast,’’ Baffert said. “It’s a challenge, but it’s $20 million.
“That’s a lot of money.”
Not that a $3 million race is anything to sneeze at, but with the Saudi Cup — in its second year – on Feb. 20, and the $12 million Dubai World Cup a month later, top owners and trainers have bigger-money options to consider. (Of course, late changes are always possible due to COVID-19 pandemic protocols).
For now, those listed as probable for the two-turn Pegasus World Cup include four winners of Grade 1 races – Knicks Go (2020 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile), True Timber (2020 Cigar Mile, 2018 Breeders’ Futurity), Code of Honor (2019 Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup), and Math Wizard (2019 Pennsylvania Derby).
Three probables also ran in last year’s Pegasus World Cup: Mr Freeze (second, 4 ½ lengths behind Mucho Gusto), True Timber (eighth) and Tax (ninth). True Timber is back for a third try, having finished seventh in 2019.
Other invitees include Harpers First Ride, Jesus’ Team, King Guillermo, Kiss Today Goodbye, and Sleepy Eyes Todd.
In case there are dropouts before the post-position draw on Jan. 23, the waiting list includes Idol, Independence Hall, and Coastal Defense.
Knicks Go, who was sent to trainer Brad Cox’s stable in 2020, may wind up as the favorite. Since the trainer change, Knicks Go went 3-for-3 in 2020, most recently rolling to victory in the BC Dirt Mile to improve his record to 5-3-1 in 17 starts.
Code of Honor, after wins in the 2019 Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup, went 1-for-5 in 2020 — his lone win in the Westchester (G3) in June. He’s 0-for-4 since, most recently running second to Bodexpress in the Clark (G1) on Nov. 27. Nonetheless, the 5-year-old is a likely second choice.
Not exactly your star-studded lineup for a $3 million race. But that leaves plenty of possibilities for the rest of the field, many of them having showing flashes of greatness.
Take True Timber, for example. The 7-year-old under the care of trainer Jack Sisterson ended an 0-for-13 losing streak with a victory in the prestigious Cigar Mile at Aqueduct on Dec. 5 — by 5 ½ lengths. Prior to that, he ran second to Sleepy Eyes Todd in the Lafayette at Keeneland on Nov. 7.
“He’s 7 years old and he knows exactly what his job is,’’ Sisterson, who took charge of the horse after trainer Kiaran McLaughlin retired over the summer. “We just train him the way he wants to be trained and keep him happy. He seems to be turning the corner for us.”
Sleepy Eyes Todd, a 5-year-old, has won three of his last four starts – the Mr. Prospector (G3), the aforementioned Lafayette and the Charles Town Classic (G2) last summer. He ran fifth in the Awesome Again (G1) at Santa Anita on Sept. 26, 12 ¼ lengths behind the winner Improbable.
Can King Guillermo, winner of the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) last March and fourth in the Cigar Mile, be a factor? He’s a favorite in Florida, but may go off at an enticing price. Plus, he’s been training well in South Florida.
So has Math Wizard, 0-for-7 since his upset in the 2019 Pennsylvania Derby at 31-1 odds. Trainer Saffie Joseph, Jr., still believes his 5-year-old can win big again. Coming off a three-month layoff, Math Wizard ran fourth in the Harlan’s Holiday.
“He’s doing good. Normally, when he comes off a layoff, it takes a race or two for him to come back to order,’’ Joseph said. “We wanted to get him the race in the Harlan’s Holiday. I feel like he’s going to move forward off that race.”
Jesus’ Team, trained by Jose D’Angelo, just may be a horse ready for a big breakout win. The 4-year-old ran second, third, third, and second in the Pegasus Stakes, the Jim Dandy, the Preakness (at 40-1), and the BC Dirt Mile (at 62-1), respectively, before winning the Claiming Crown Jewel Stakes at 2-5 odds at Gulfstream on Dec. 5 – a race at the Pegasus World Cup distance of 1 1/8 miles.
“It’s very exciting. It is the most important race of our calendar in South Florida at Gulfstream Park,” D’Angelo said. “I think it’s a big test for both me and Jesus.”
Tax, winner of the 2019 Jim Dandy (G2), ended an 0-for-4 run by winning the Harlan’s Holiday (G3) at Gulfstream on Dec. 12. He, too, is training well for Danny Gargan.
Lightly-raced, California-based Kiss Today Goodbye could bring a big price. His claim to fame is win over Mucho Gusto in the Malibu on Dec. 26. And so can Maryland-bred Harpers First Ride, winner of four of his last five starts – three at Laurel and his big win in the Pimlico Special (G3).
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.