Positive vibes all around inaugural Pegasus World Cup

Profile Picture:

TwinSpires Staff

January 29th, 2017

Story and photos by RON FLATTER

Hallandale Beach, Florida – Never mind the race. For a while Saturday afternoon it looked as if the inaugural running of the Pegasus World Cup would be a box-office bust. Gulfstream Park was not even close to being full, even with its boutique size.

Then the clock struck 3:00 – or something like that. Before the afternoon was out, and before Arrogate won by 4 3/4 lengths in the world’s first $12 million horse race, Gulfstream was more than full.

“It was a slower crowd getting here,” said Gulfstream Park president Tim Ritvo. “We marketed to a non-traditional crowd, so we got a little bit of a later crowd. But we were thrilled. We tried to reach out to a new demographic, and I think we hit it.”

Translation: younger. And it looked it. And felt it.

“It had a Kentucky Derby feeling,” said Bob Baffert, who trained Arrogate to the $7 million first prize. “There was a lot of vibe. A young crowd. Vibrant. Everybody was having a good time. It was like a big party. A lot of cheering, yelling. It was hopping today up there.”

“This place was unbelievable,” said Dr. John Chandler, president of Arrogate’s owner Juddmonte Farms. “The atmosphere and the emotion here was surprising. When they started this race I wondered if it would take some time to get off the ground. It looks like the whole operation is off and running.”

Belinda Stronach, president of the Stronach Group that put on this race and owns Gulfstream Park, was more to the point when she said “we had a really sexy crowd up there.”

With a goal of 15,000, Ritvo estimated the crowd may have numbered 17,000 people. They may have made Arrogate the 9-to-10 favorite, but they sounded decidedly pro-California Chrome.  Whenever the two-time Horse of the Year was introduced or made an entrance, his traveling fan club let fly with loud cheers.

“Look at how many ‘Chromies’ followed him,” his jockey Víctor Espinoza said after Chrome faded to finish ninth. “He’s just done so much for me and for the sport.”

“I think that we watched a fabulous horse race,” said Dale Romans, who trained 10th-place finisher Prayer For Relief. “This thing worked – what Frank did. It’s one of the most enjoyable days I’ve ever participated in in horse racing.”

The crowd that poured in on a sunny, 67-degree day was just part of the story. Ritvo reported a handle of $41 million, $7 million more than the next biggest (non-Breeders' Cup) day in Gulfstream Park history, and more than double the comparable day headlined last year by the Donn Handicap. But Ritvo admitted that there is room for financial improvement for the race.

“It obviously didn’t do anywhere enough to be profitable for the shareholders,” Ritvo said, referring to the investors who put up $1 million each for the record purse. “What really is going to be the metric is how we did on NBC for a rating, and how we did on sponsorships for the future years. Sponsorships, NBC ratings and always growing the handle. Those are the three metrics to get the shareholders back more than what they invest.”

Ritvo said all aspects of the race would be reviewed, including the controversial $100 minimum ticket price, which was cut to $50 late Saturday afternoon. He said that was all along the plan as long as there was still room for more fans.

“We’re a company that believes you don’t make money on your admissions,” Ritvo said. “But on a special event like this, we had to try to see what we could do to grab some revenue back, because we invested a lot of money in the marketing of this. We’ll have to rethink that.”

While we wait to see if the same shareholders will continue to buy into this racing concept or whether new ones will come along, organizers are already looking ahead to 2018. For her part Stronach pushed back on talk that the race might be moved to the bigger, more crowd-friendly Santa Anita Park, which her family also owns.

“I think we’ve established a base, a presence today,” Stronach said. “We want to build a brand. My vote would be to keep it here. We haven’t formalized that yet. But it’s got a real Miami vibe to it, so we’ll see.”

Her father Frank Stronach, who is credited with the idea for this race, had a bolder goal in mind.

“Horse racing should really be the number-one sport in the world,” he said, “because it gives so many people the feeling that they can be winners. When you look at the crowd, they’re riding the horse home. They’re like Mike Smith riding and riding. You feel like a winner.”

Before he rode Arrogate to victory, Smith said he was not so absorbed in his preparation for the race that he did not realize what was going on around him.

“It definitely had the big vibe to it,” Smith said. “It was like the Breeders’ Cup Classic times two. I can honestly tell you when they said ‘riders up,’ I said, ‘oh, man, $12 million.’ I got a little extra jitters there, but it was a good kind to have.”