When Gulfstream Park owner Frank Stronach commissioned the erection of a 110-foot statue of the mythical winged horse Pegasus on the grounds of his South Florida racetrack, people thought he was either compensating for something or out of his friggin’ mind.
The same could have been said when Stronach came up with the idea to hold a $12 million Grade 1 dirt race for older horses, dubbed the Pegasus World Cup, in January at Gulfstream, wherein the competitors’ connections would stake $1 million apiece to cover the purse, which in 2017 was the largest in the sport.
But even if it can’t fly, the horse statue looks pretty cool! And the Pegasus World Cup, even as its purse structure and size has been significantly reduced to its present-day $3 million, has consistently delivered on its promise of being a race that attracts Breeders’ Cup champions looking for a shot at a crowning achievement before they’re retired to stud.
Until this year, anyway.
The 5/2 morning-line favorite in the 2023 Pegasus World Cup is Cyberknife, the runner-up in this past November’s Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. But horses like Flightline, Taiba, Olympiad, and Hot Rod Charlie — the type of elite older routers who would have been expected to fill a spot in the starting gate at Pegasuses past — are nowhere to be found, opting instead for trips to either richer Middle Eastern ovals or the breeding shed.
Instead, while this year’s Pegasus promises to be a competitive race that should be attractive to horse bettors, it falls well short of its predecessors in terms of class and star power — prompting a back-and-forth between two US Bets writers with expertise on the sport.
Seels ‘n Rybs discuss the merits
Mike Seely: Is this year’s relatively lackluster field an aberration, or does Stronach’s vision for the Pegasus World Cup now seem destined to fail?
Matt Rybaltowski: The original incarnation of the Pegasus gave investors the opportunity to purchase a slot in the starting gate for a cool sum of $1 million. From there, investors had the option of offering the full slot in a competitive bidding process, selling off slices to fractional owners or holding onto the entire stake outright.
When I spoke to two owners months before the inaugural race in 2017, they predicted that the idea “would transform the sport” while generating vigorous “horse trading” between investors for a share of a $12 million pot. In theory, the idea may have had lasting power if the Pegasus consistently produced a deep, talented field of the world’s top older horses.
But early on, the alpha males of the group showed their mettle. Arrogate romped by 4¾ lengths in the first-ever Pegasus, followed by dominant wins from Gun Runner and City of Light in successive years.
With smaller fields, the Pegasus abandoned the concept of slot ownership. In many ways, it is a tacit admission of a dynamic in horse racing that has prevailed for a good portion of the 21st century: When it comes to older horses, breeding takes precedence over racing. Why take a shot at knocking off an Arrogate or a Gun Runner with a middling entrant? Your horse may get up to show, but at a fee of $1 million, the price tag is too exorbitant.
It is too early to determine whether this year’s mediocre Pegasus field will be an anomaly. Racing fans were a little spoiled watching American Pharoah, Arrogate, Gun Runner, and Justify in consecutive campaigns, but I predict that the quality of the 2023 Pegasus will be closer to the norm for the next few years to come.
MS: The irony of this year’s race is that while Flightline’s inclusion would have made it less competitive, it would have served as a victory lap of sorts for the biggest star the sport has seen in half a century or more.
With Flightline, in stud mode, recently valued at $184 million, even a $20 million purse — equal to February’s Saudi Cup, where we’ll next see Taiba — would seem to offer little incentive to get the horse back on the track one more time. Then again, if Flightline closed his career with something other than a win, how much would it really impact his valuation?
And while we’re on the topic of Flightline, should a horse that only raced three times in 12 months really be in the running for an Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year? In any other year, I think the answer would be a resounding “no,” but we’re in somewhat uncharted territory with this particular beast.
MR: Given the form that Flightline exhibited in 2022, I don’t have any issue with his selection for Horse of the Year. Flightline’s 19½ length win in the Pacific Classic is arguably the most impressive victory of the last 25 years, with the possible exception of Ghostzapper’s triumph over a loaded field in the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Ghostzapper, the 2004 Horse of the Year, raced just four times that year, taking nine months off before his season debut on the Fourth of July. Gone are the days when Easy Goer was entered in nine Grade I stakes during his stellar 11-race campaign in 1989. Quality trumps quantity.
Beverly Park, a 7-year-old son of Munnings, paced all American horses with a whopping 15 wins last year, but entered the starting gate an equally astounding 30 times. Considering that the majority of his starts came at places like Mahoning Valley Race Course, Timonium Race Track, and Belterra Park, it comes as little surprise that Beverly Park’s earnings per start came to $9,854.
Flightline dueled with Life Is Good through suicidal fractions in the Classic before trouncing runner-up Olympiad by 8¼ lengths. Olympiad raced eight times in 2022, but on his best day he would not finish within shouting distance of the undefeated Flightline.
Flightline’s performance last year does raise this question: Where does he rank among the most elite horses since 2010? Does he rank above the likes of Arrogate, American Pharoah, and Knicks Go? One racing enthusiast proposed this mythical 20-horse field.
Who Wins This Race? Flightline was A BEAST buttt this wouldnt be easy. pic.twitter.com/DXMr3NaQMN
— WorcesterIrish (@RealIrishMan) January 24, 2023
MS: That’s a helluva field — and Flightline would wipe the floor with all of them. Remember that corny simulated Kentucky Derby that was “run” during the pandemic and featured all-time greats like Secretariat (who “won”) and Seattle Slew? A few of those horses might have given Flightline a run for his money, but maybe not.
Then again, while Flightline never ran anything close to a bad race, that could simply be because he didn’t run enough races to trot out a stinker. Flightline didn’t start racing until a couple weeks before the 2021 Kentucky Derby, when he won his maiden race in dominant fashion. Can you imagine if he’d started racing two months earlier and swept the Triple Crown before going on to do what he did? What would his valuation be then, half a billion dollars?
One thing that does worry me, even at his current stratospheric valuation, is that Flightline won’t be as virile a mare-mounter as he was a racehorse. But I digress. I’m thinking we should spend a little time discussing the horses that are actually entered in the 2023 Pegasus World Cup.
Art Collector? Nice horse in his prime, but that prime is in the past. And while Cyberknife is a worthy favorite, I like a pair of his fellow 4-year-olds in Skyppylongstocking (5/1 ML) and Simplification (15/1) in this spot. They’ve each had tons of success at this track and are coming off first- and third-place finishes, respectively, in the Harlan’s Holiday at Gulfstream on Dec. 22.
And if I’m really bombing, I’m throwing a little dough on Last Samurai (20/1) due solely to the legendary trainer-jockey pairing of D. Wayne Lukas and Frankie Dettori. That’s a terrible angle, but sometimes you just have to turn on your heartlight, right?
MR: I, for one, loved the historic Triple Crown simulation at the height of the pandemic. It was an extremely creative idea that provided some nostalgia for race fans on a day normally reserved for the Run for the Roses.
The simulation nailed the winner with Secretariat, despite the unfair slight to Whirlaway down the stretch. If Whirlaway didn’t bump American Pharoah at the top of the stretch, he easily could have placed.
As for Saturday’s race, the unorthodox configuration for nine-furlong races at Gulfstream must be taken into account. For races contested at 1 1/8 miles, there is a short run-up to the opening turn. Three horses that are typically forwardly placed, Skippylongstocking, Cyberknife, and Stilleto Boy, will all break from the outside. Consequently, if those horses dart inside to save ground on the turn, they may be too spent to handle the distance.
Instead, my pick for the Pegasus is Proxy. After a strong start to his 3-year-old career, Proxy missed 10 months with a cannon bone bruise. He returned to finish in the money in all six of his 2022 starts, highlighted by a 1¾ length win in November’s Grade I Clark Handicap.
Now, Proxy is finally rounding into form with triple-digit Beyer speed figures in each of his last two starts. Jockey Joel Rosario can wait patiently on the backstretch and close into a quick pace. I will take Proxy on top in an exacta wheel with Cyberknife, Skippylongstocking, and O’Connor.
Photo: Eclipse Sportswire/Courtesy of Gulfstream Park