The world’s richest race is all about California Chrome and Arrogate
by Ron Flatter
Hallandale Beach, Florida
It is the eve of the richest horse race in the world. So the place must be teeming with high rollers and beautiful people with parties into the night and celebrities passing over a red carpet through gilded entrances.
But that would be Dubai, where the richest horse race in the world used to be. Now it is here at Gulfstream Park, where the vibe for Saturday’s inaugural running of the $12 million Pegasus World Cup is still a work in progress – one that is more about the rematch of Arrogate and California Chrome than it is about the trappings for the race.
“This is a ground-floor type of atmosphere,” said Art Sherman, who will saddle Chrome one last time before the chestnut goes to stud. “I think it’s going to be a big deal for the United States to have a $12 million race.”
Sherman has had the best view in the house of the build-up to both this new event and the former richest race in the world. That was the $10 million Dubai World Cup, which Chrome won last year after finishing second the year before.
“They put on a hell of a show in Dubai,” Sherman said. “Unless you’ve gone there and seen it…everything is for the horse. We stayed at the Meydan hotel, which overlooked the racetrack. My wife loved that. She could go out and watch Chrome gallop right from the balcony, so it’s pretty cool.”
But unlike Meydan, which has a mile-long grandstand that holds 60,000 people and a video board that stretches about a furlong, Gulfstream Park has only about 4,000 permanent seats with room being made for maybe 11,000 more on Saturday.
“Day in and day out this is a great building,” said track president Tim Ritvo. “Most of the time it carries enough people. But when you do an event of this size, we will struggle a little bit with the on-track (attendance).”
That is one reason the ticket price starts at $100 and goes as high as $1,750. There has been no shortage of criticism that that is too steep, but nearly all those tickets were sold.
“This is like Mayweather-Pacquiao,” said Bob Baffert, who trains Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Arrogate. “This is pay-per-view stuff, but we don’t have that. If you’re a real fan and you go to the Super Bowl, you’ll pay whatever it costs to sit up front. I don’t think that’s going to be a big deal.”
By comparison, though, general admission is usually free of charge at Gulfstream Park.
“To see two of the greatest athletes compete at any level at any sport, $100 is still not a big ticket price,” Ritvo said. “Now obviously if you said that to a person who has been getting in free day-in and day-out, they might not agree with you.”
The Pegasus sideshows are also taking baby steps. Parties the week of the Dubai World Cup are lavish, including a bacchanalian event an hour away from the city at an equestrian theater where endless tables of food and drink and a big stage show befitting an Arabian night beckon thousands of owners, trainers, jockeys, veterinarians, media, VIPs and the ruling royal family. Here at Gulfstream, a more modest, private gathering of the new race’s million-dollar shareholders will happen at a South Beach nightspot on Friday.
And where Dubai surrounds its big race with a fireworks show and a concert with the likes of Elton John, Jennifer López and Janet Jackson, the inaugural Pegasus concert will feature country singer Thomas Rhett.
But to be fair, the Dubai World Cup will be run this year for the 22nd time, so it has had time to build a reputation. The Pegasus is testing the water. If there is one move it may make right away – it is to a bigger venue also owned by Frank Stronach.
“I think it’s probably going to be a good idea for next year to have it at Santa Anita,” Sherman said. “Once it gets big and everybody knows how to play this game, I think with Frank Stronach running it, I think it’s going to be a big deal for the United States to have a $12 million race.”
For now the vibe is not nearly as much for the big-money glamour as it is for the two big racehorses. Dozens of people showed up before dawn Friday to see California Chrome’s last pre-race gallop. They formed a phalanx on either side of the horse path out of Barn 2 to watch the two-time Horse of the Year’s every move from barn to track – even in the pitch dark.
“There’s 100 people by his barn at 5:45 in the morning,” Sherman said. “It’s great. We’ve got everybody here from California. A lot of people made the trip. We’ve got like 20 Chromies here. He’s got a fan club that is unbelievable. These women follow him all over the country. They’re really a super bunch of people. I’m sure glad they hooked up to Chrome, because it’s made a big difference in his fanfare.”
Likewise there were dozens of people Friday morning at Barn 20, where Baffert held court after Arrogate’s morning gallop. The day before Arrogate attracted another crowd when he schooled in the Gulfstream paddock.
“Dubai is a different animal,” Baffert said. “This is more for America. It’s America’s finest racing.”
And the Pegasus carries the unique cachet of being a race in which a $1 million fee was required of each of the 12 entries to pool the $12 million purse.
“One of the complaints about racing has always been same-old, same-old,” said Dale Romans, trainer of nine-year-old Pegasus long shot Prayer for Relief. “This is really out-of-the-box thinking. It’s a work in progress. Hopefully it’s a major success and people enjoy it, learn a lot from this effort and build from it.”
“I know we’re in our inaugural year, and I know we’re far from perfect,” Ritvo said. “But it would be hard not be thrilled with the two best horses in the world re-matching. It’s really off to a good start.”