Pegasus ruminations: Gun Runner goes out blazing, West Coast the heir apparent

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

January 29th, 2018

Since the essence of horse racing is determining the best horse, there’s something satisfying about a logical and decisive result, particularly in the sport’s landmark events.

Thus Saturday’s $16 million Pegasus World Cup (G1) performed up to its status as the world’s richest race, sending newly crowned Horse of the Year Gun Runner out in a blaze of glory, and pointing to valiant runner-up West Coast as his heir apparent in the older dirt male division. The cream rose to the top, as the two 2017 Eclipse Award winners outclassed the rest of the field. And once again, the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) winner reigned supreme in the Pegasus, Gun Runner turning the double that Arrogate inaugurated last year.

My other initial reactions:

1. Post 10, far from being a detriment, showcased Gun Runner’s talent. The even-money favorite had the gears, and regular rider Florent Geroux knew how to use them, to secure an ideal position in the short run to the first turn. Straightaway in his comfort zone, prompting pacesetter Collected, Gun Runner pretty much telegraphed the outcome very early. The poor post actually served to enhance Gun Runner’s legacy. He didn’t suffer the typical adversity from that spot because he was simply too good to be compromised, and worked out the trip he wanted anyway.

Of course, Gun Runner’s desired trip is in itself too daunting for anyone but a champion, to run that hard from flagfall to finish. You might even say that he saved the best for last, from a speed figure perspective, for he turned in a career-best 119 BRIS Speed rating in his swan song. As another indicator of how demanding the Pegasus was, most of those in the first half of the field early ended up in the latter half across the wire– the exceptions being Gun Runner and West Coast.

2. How big a year will West Coast have? Although I heartily cast my ballot for him as champion three-year-old male, I wasn’t all that rapt by him, in general, just for being the best of a topsy-turvy 2017 classic crop. But the May 14 foal reached a new level here with the race of his life, and the promise of more to come for Hall of Famer Bob Baffert.

Showing real athleticism on the far turn, where he adroitly maneuvered off the fence, and split the fading Collected and Giant Expectations, West Coast loomed near enough for Gun Runner to sense his presence. Maybe Gun Runner would have given that extra spurt in the lane anyway, but it’s arguable that West Coast prompted him to up the ante. Each may have pushed the other, for West Coast’s persistent pursuit carried him 10 3/4 lengths clear of third, good for a career-best 116 Speed rating. As a counterfactual, imagine if Gun Runner had retired after the Breeders’ Cup: West Coast would have been a dominant winner of the Pegasus. Now the Dubai World Cup (G1) may be calling.

3. Sharp Azteca threw a tactical curveball. Whether you thought Sharp Azteca would try to make the most of his early speed, or reprise his close stalking role from the Cigar Mile (G1), few could have imagined he’d be reserved in fifth. New rider Irad Ortiz Jr. appeared to concede the lead to Collected, then Sharp Azteca had to steady off heels entering the clubhouse turn, Giant Expectations scooted past him to track, and that was it. For a horse who needs to be engaged early, he was never in a position to run his race, and retreated to a too-bad-to-be-true eighth.

Had Sharp Azteca (and Ortiz) been intent on grabbing the early lead or going eyeball-to-eyeball with Collected, he probably would have paid the price in his first attempt at nine furlongs. But at least his fans could have seen him use his chief weapon, even if it didn’t pan out for him. This way he didn’t play a card at all. He’s worth trying over the distance again at some point, in a more congenial spot with a race shape that favors him – as long as he doesn’t forego a major one-turn race in the process.

4. The admirable Gunnevera and hard-trying Fear the Cowboy deserve credit for bringing their “A” game. Even allowing for the pace set-up, and their proficiency over the Gulfstream surface, both had to deliver on the day to round out the superfecta in a deep field. Gunnevera was already proven as the winner of the Fountain of Youth (G2) and Saratoga Special (G2), runner-up to West Coast in the Travers (G1), and veteran of the classics and Breeders’ Cup. Fear the Cowboy, on the other hand, hadn’t tried Grade 2 company yet, never mind an all-star clash. So he was punching above his weight in fourth.

5. Others didn’t fire their best shot, but thankfully came home safe. Collected was the biggest disappointment to me, folding much more tamely than he should have. The more charitable view (espoused by jockey Mike Smith) is that he was laboring over the track. The less charitable view (my inclination) is that he couldn’t take the moral pressure exerted by Gun Runner, and just said “That’s it. I’m outta here. Where’s the next flight home?” Stellar Wind met with trouble, or else she may have fared a little better than sixth. Still, she’s a past champion who now has a date with American Pharoah, so there are worse fates. Finally, the dream that Toast of New York could do himself justice ran smack dab into unforgiving reality, and he was spent a long way out. I hope Jamie Osborne gets him back on synthetic for the February 25 Winter Derby (G3) at Lingfield, over the course and distance of his comeback win. That should tell us more about where he stands. If he bounces back, connections would have more reason to press on to the Dubai World Cup. If not, his racing future may need to be re-assessed.

Gun Runner photo courtesy of Photos by Z