Will pace make the race in Pegasus?

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TwinSpires Staff

January 25th, 2018

By Dick Powell

They say “Pace makes the Race” and we’ll see if “They” are right this Saturday in the $16 million Pegasus World Cup (G1). Because after Wednesday’s post-position draw at Gulfstream Park, there figures to be a pretty hot pace. 

A lot of people have voiced the opinion that the World Cup would be better off if it was run at 10 furlongs. I disagree for a couple of reasons. 

Yes, at Gulfstream Park, the starting gate is pretty close to the clubhouse turn and the record of horses drawing on the outside is pretty bad. If the race were at 10 furlongs, or even 9 ½ furlongs, there would be more distance to sort things out going into the first turn. 

But with the exception of the Kentucky Derby (G1), with its big field of 20 runners, 10-furlong races usually have soft paces since many riders are concerned with their mounts getting the trip. Nine furlongs will force the riders to break alertly and use their horses. Thus, the hot pace which should keep the Pegasus World Cup from being the merry-go-round race where nobody makes up any ground.  

Not only should the pace of the Pegasus World Cup be fast but it should be contested. I can’t imagine anyone will open up a clear lead without immediate pressure applied by the other riders. At 10 furlongs, the riders of the stalkers might be confident that the leader will come back to them. At nine furlongs, they have to be aggressive. 

Hall of Fame rider Jerry Bailey always said that the pace is not set by the rider on the leader but the rider on the second horse. If he or she doesn’t apply pressure on the leader, the rider on the leader can nurse their horse as long as possible. 

Bigger fields often present problems for the rider on the horse in second. As much as he or she might be content to sit just off the leader, when the horses behind start to rally, they have to make their move on the leader sooner than they want or risk being in between horses. And the leader has to run even faster to maintain its position. 

If the Pegasus World Cup were run at 10 furlongs, I can’t imagine 12 horses contesting it despite its lucrative purse. The nine-furlong distance brings horses like SHARP AZTECA into the picture where he would be unlikely to try 10 furlongs. Training for nine furlongs also enables the trainer to drop down in trip but training for 10 furlongs makes it harder since stamina needs to be built in. 

Believe it or not, if it were up to me, the Pegasus World Cup would be run as a one-turn mile with distance horses turning back and sprinters stretching out. Kind of like the Met Mile (G1) on steroids.  

I see the Pegasus World Cup as a fascinating challenge for the riders. Odds-on morning line favorite GUN RUNNER’s rider, Florent Geroux, has to break well from post 10 but can’t run the risk of going up after the leaders and get stuck four wide. His past performances show that he can win from off the pace but he was usually on the outside.  

If Geroux decides to let the inside speed go and tries to drops over to the inside, he runs the risk of having his long-striding superstar stuck in tight quarters. Unless the pace is brutally fast and the horses get strung out, Gun Runner figures to be wide on both turns. 

Irad Ortiz Jr. rides Sharp Azteca who drew perfectly in post 4. Interestingly, he has never been aboard Sharp Azteca but the speedball has won for different riders before. His second in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) was brilliant since he battled going two turns while down on the inside on a track that favored wide closers most of the day.  

He came back in the Cigar Mile (G1) and won convincingly by over five lengths and earned a 114 BRIS Speed rating that is as fast as any Gun Runner has run. 

The reason that Sharp Azteca needs a new rider is because his previous rider, Javier Castellano, returns on Bob Baffert’s WEST COAST, winner of two straight Grade 1 stakes races before running third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). 

West Coast runs up near the lead and from post 2, Castellano will probably want no part of Sharp Azteca early. After all, he rode him last out and knows how fast he is. At least, unlike Geroux on Gun Runner, he doesn’t have to worry about being hung wide on the clubhouse turn.  

Baffert’s other starter is COLLECTED and he gets Mike Smith, winner of this race last year aboard ARROGATE. Collected won his first four starts this year, including two over Arrogate, when ridden by Martin Garcia and exits a good second in the Classic when he did all the work chasing a loose-on-the-lead GUN RUNNER. His return to the races this year was a dull third in the San Antonio Stakes (G2) at Santa Anita but Smith assures that it was just a prep and he was keeping his powder dry for Saturday.  

The history of Bob Baffert in big races is to send his horses to the front no matter what. See BODEMEISTER outsprinting TRINNIBERG, who turned out to be that year’s champion sprinter, for the lead through record-setting fractions in the 2012 Kentucky Derby.  

Now, here is where it gets really interesting. In post 12 is the upset winner of the San Antonio, GIANT EXPECTATIONS, who went gate to wire that day as Gary Stevens was allowed to set a dawdling pace. Stevens is one of the all-time great front-end riders: see WINNING COLORS in the 1988 Kentucky Derby, COMMENTATOR in the 2005 Whitney Handicap (G1) and OXBOW in the 2013 Preakness Stakes (G1). Not saying he will gun to the lead from post 12 but what else is he going to do? 

And that brings us to the big story of the post-position draw: WAR STORY in post 8. War Story is trained by Sharp Azteca’s trainer, Jorge Navarro, and will be ridden by Jose Ortiz, brother of Sharp Azteca’s rider, Irad Ortiz. 

War Story doesn’t have a ton of early speed but before Gun Runner is able to negotiate the clubhouse turn from post 10, he will have to get around Jose Ortiz and War Story breaking from post 8. By the way, Ortiz is about the best gate rider there is in America. 

Saturday can’t some soon enough.