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Gun Runner’s finale just one of storylines for 2018 Pegasus World Cup

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

January 15th, 2018

As the world’s richest race, the $16 million Pegasus World Cup (G1) ought to have an abundance of storylines. If last year’s inaugural running was all about the Arrogate-California Chrome rematch, the January 27 renewal at Gulfstream Park presents multiple points of interest.

1. Presumptive Horse of the Year Gun Runner makes his grand finale, thereafter retiring to stud at co-owner Three Chimneys Farm just in time for the breeding season. On the surface, that’s reminiscent of the 2017 Pegasus, which marked the swan song for two-time Horse of the Year California Chrome before he entered stud at Taylor Made.

But Gun Runner is in a stronger position as the current Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) winner. Unlike California Chrome, who was defeated by whippersnapper Arrogate in the 2016 Classic at Santa Anita, and thereby sought revenge in the Pegasus, Gun Runner simply bids to confirm his superiority in his rematch with beaten Classic foes. That’s exactly what Arrogate did here last January.

Also like Arrogate, Gun Runner has not raced since the Classic. In contrast, California Chrome prepped with a dominant, track record-setting victory at his home base of Los Alamitos. Gun Runner has instead been limbering up with a series of strong drills at Fair Grounds for Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen.

Should Gun Runner make it two-for-two for Classic winners in the Pegasus, he would go out riding a five-race winning streak. And the estimated $7 million winner’s check would push his career earnings almost to the $16 million threshold, surpassing California Chrome and ranking second only to Arrogate on the North American list of all-time leading earners.

A Gun Runner victory would also pose a what-might-have been. If it weren’t for an EHV-1 outbreak that put the Fair Grounds under quarantine last winter, Gun Runner was eyeing the inaugural Pegasus. He ended up having to await the Razorback (G3) at Oaklawn, and his 5 3/4-length tour de force there suggested he’d have done well at Gulfstream. Well enough to threaten track record-setting Arrogate? Maybe not, but he might have finished even closer to him than he did in the Dubai World Cup (G1).

2. The Breeders’ Cup Classic result will be put to the test, most notably by placegetters Collected and West Coast taking another crack at Gun Runner. Former stablemates of now-retired Arrogate, they will give Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert two chances at maintaining his perfect record in the Pegasus. Although neither has the cache that Arrogate had 12 months ago, each can argue his own case.

Collected’s chief talking point is that the 1 1/8-mile distance of the Pegasus may suit him better than the Classic. Granted, the son of City Zip stayed 1 1/4 miles well enough to upstage an off-form Arrogate in the Pacific Classic (G1), and finish second to Gun Runner over the same Del Mar track. But his most visually stunning performances have come going a little shorter, and pedigree reinforces the notion that the American classic distance stretches him. Of course, the rub is that Gun Runner, who had yet to win going 1 1/4 miles until the Classic, has been sublime at this 1 1/8-mile trip himself. And Collected comes off a subpar third in his prep, the December 26 San Antonio (G2), where he was surprisingly taken out of his game and held up off the pace.

West Coast’s chief talking point is his potential progression from three to four. As a later-developing type who was unraced at two, not ready for the Triple Crown, and emerged as a second-half star in the Travers (G1), he owns a broadly similar profile to Arrogate’s. The parallel is rough at best, since West Coast also aired in the Pennsylvania Derby (G1), but settled for third in his first stakes attempt versus elders in the Classic. As a son of Flatter and champion juvenile filly Caressing, West Coast is another who may have handled 1 1/4 miles on class while finding 1 1/8 miles more in his natural wheelhouse.

Rounding out the Breeders’ Cup Classic contingent are fourth-placer War Story and Gunnevera, the dead-heat fifth with defending champion Arrogate. Gunnevera hopes that a venue change to Gulfstream, where he romped in last year’s Fountain of Youth (G2), and a jockey switch to Luis Saez will help him overturn the form. War Story, fifth in last year’s Pegasus, is the only returnee for this edition. The hero of the 1 1/2-mile Brooklyn (G2), War Story was beaten double-digits by Gun Runner twice at 1 1/8 miles at Saratoga last summer.

3. Sharp Azteca is in career form as he steps up to 1 1/8 miles for the first time. Fresh off his first Grade 1 triumph in the Cigar Mile (G1), where he showed the tactical adaptability to stalk and pounce, the Jorge Navarro trainee appears ready both physically and mentally to stretch out to nine furlongs. The high-class miler is untested beyond 1 1/16 miles, but he blitzed the Monmouth Cup (G3) at that trip in a track-record 1:40.19 last summer, and pedigree suggests he can cope with the added ground.

Irad Ortiz Jr. picks up the mount on Sharp Azteca, who adds yet more tactical speed to the Pegasus. Gun Runner and Collected are both forward types, and West Coast figures to attend them. Thus post positions, and who breaks alertly (or not) on the day, take on added importance for how the race unfolds. Theoretically you’d expect Sharp Azteca to track, rather than try to wire this caliber of field going 1 1/8 miles, but circumstances might force his – or someone else’s – hand.

4. English shipper Toast of New York could be the comeback story of the year. You might remember the name from 2014, when he captured the UAE Derby (G2), chased home Shared Belief in the Pacific Classic, and just missed to Bayern, while outdueling California Chrome, in an epically controversial Breeders’ Cup Classic. Trainer Jamie Osborne was looking forward to preparing “Toast” for the 2015 Dubai World Cup, only to have his stable star knocked out by a tendon injury.

Al Shaqab Racing, which had just purchased him as a World Cup prospect, decided to retire him to stud – in its home base of Qatar! The idea was to support the fledgling Thoroughbred breeding industry in the Persian Gulf state, but Toast didn’t have many mares and reportedly sired only 10 foals.

Put back in training with Osborne, since his original injury had healed, Toast was gradually nursed into racing shape. He launched his improbable comeback in a 10-furlong conditions race over Lingfield’s Polytrack on December 6. Three years and a month after his Classic bid at Santa Anita, he returned a gutsy winner beneath Frankie Dettori, and emboldened connections to pursue the Pegasus.

Toast’s pipe-opener at Lingfield has apparently brought him on nicely, for he awed them in a work in company at Kempton last week.

“It was pretty spectacular,” Osborne told Racing Post’s Graham Dench. “It was better than he was ever doing pre-Breeders' Cup.”

If his trainer’s right, and Toast is at least as good as the 2014 model, he’d rate as a wildcard. As unbelievable as that sounds, the seven-year-old has already done something pretty amazing.

5. Champion Stellar Wind, recently purchased for $6 million by Coolmore as a bride for American Pharoah, is rolling the dice in one final start before the breeding shed. Switched to Chad Brown for her Pegasus preparations, the daughter of Curlin has come along well for her new team at Palm Meadows.

Yet as Brown acknowledges, it’s an awfully deep spot. Stellar Wind has never faced males before, and she was out of luck in her three Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) attempts for John Sadler. The most frustrating was during her Eclipse Award campaign as champion three-year-old filly of 2015, when she was compromised by Stopchargingmaria in a tight finish, and you could make a plausible case for disqualifying the winner. During her 2016 season, Stellar Wind twice outdueled surefire Hall of Famer Beholder, but never got close enough to eyeball her in the Distaff after flubbing the start. It was a similar story in 2017, as Stellar Wind was terrific until throwing in a Breeders’ Cup clunker. Can Brown bring her back to her Beholder rivalry form in so short a time? And would even that be enough?

6. Seeking the Soul enters on the upswing for Dallas Stewart, whose longshots can’t be discounted in marquee events. The Charles Fipke homebred represents the same connections as reigning Distaff winner Forever Unbridled, who was herself briefly in their Pegasus calculations.

A May 4 foal descended from the unbeaten legend Personal Ensign, Seeking the Soul has taken his sweet time to put it all together. But he’s reached a new level last fall, trouncing a 1 1/16-mile Keeneland allowance in a track-record 1:41.36 and breaking through (with the help of a weight concession) in the Clark H. (G1) at this distance. The Pegasus is clearly a different order of magnitude, in terms of competition and at level weights.

7. With the Pegasus business model involving stakeholders purchasing spots in the gate, wheeling and dealing is a natural corollary. Ron Paolucci of Loooch Racing Stable, who owns War Story, provides a case study. Paolucci reportedly opted War Story out to the Stronach Group (owner of Gulfstream Park) for the Pegasus, in order to reach a deal for Ivan Rodriguez’s Sharp Azteca to use Paolucci’s own Pegasus slot.

The Stronach Group, striving to fill the three spots it reportedly bought, has arranged for San Antonio winner Giant Expectations to use another one. A sprinter/miler and an unknown quantity beyond 1 1/16 miles, the Peter Eurton pupil stole the San Antonio thanks to Collected’s laid-back tactics, and faces an entirely more daunting scenario. He has yet to land a blow in his two previous Grade 1 attempts, including when sixth behind Battle of Midway and Sharp Azteca in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1). (Daily Racing Form has covered these various deal-brokering developments.)

As of this writing, those are the 10 confirmed Pegasus contenders. Yet to be ironed out are the last two to make a total of 12. Paolucci still has another potential arrow in the quiver in Game Over, the West Virginia Derby (G3) runner-up, like Sharp Azteca and War Story trained by Navarro. Mossarosa’s Giuseppe the Great has been mentioned as a candidate. Placed in last year’s Pennsylvania Derby, Jim Dandy (G2), and Woody Stephens (G2), the Nick Zito pupil captured a December 10 allowance at Gulfstream. Singing Bullet, a homebred for Frank Stronach’s Adena Springs, is also in the mix. Trained by Dale Romans, the son of Hard Spun and Life at Ten was third in last summer’s Amsterdam (G2) and most recently fourth in a Gulfstream allowance December 29.

Check out the Brisnet.com news section for Pegasus World Cup updates.

Gun Runner photo by Cecilia Gustavsson/Horsephotos.com

Sharp Azteca photo: NYRA/Coglianese/Viola Jasko

Stellar Wind photo: Keeneland

 

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