On a clear and cool Del Mar night, trainer Steve Asmussen sat on the dirt ground with his back against the barn with his youngest son, Erik, pressed against his side. About 20 feet from them stood the recently crowned Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, Gun Runner, who just an hour before had taken a field of the best dirt horses in the world on a merry-go-round chase and never looked back.
Asmussen said, “I just want to take in this moment.”
Even though Gun Runner had just won a $6 million race, there was also talk of his future and his possible last race. Asmussen asked a few bystanders, “What are you hearing about the Pegasus?”
I said, “People are saying it ain’t gonna happen.”
“Well, if they’re running it, then we’ll be there,” he replied.
Almost three months have passed, and they’re running the Pegasus this Saturday. As Asmussen promised, he is here with the expected 2017 Horse of the Year in the richest race in the world for a total purse of $16 million. Gun Runner has trained consistently, as he has over his whole illustrious career, and he’s shipped to Gulfstream awaiting his last career race before going off to stud.
Everything has gone to plan for Asmussen, so it’s now up to jockey Florent Geroux to get a leg up one last time on the best horse he’s ever mounted and ride him off into the Florida sunset on a winning note.
How does Geroux navigate a field of 11 focused horses, all targeting him with a bullseye on his back? That’s the question that we’ll analyze in this Pegasus Pace Analysis. We’ll evaluate the running styles of the top speed horses in the Pegasus field to “design the race” with expected early pace scenarios.
Let’s get ready for the Pegasus, right here, right now:
Gunning for the Lead
Evaluating the Brisnet pace figures, Gun Runner has the highest early speed in the Pegasus field, but that doesn’t mean that Geroux will “gun it” for the lead. Geroux was content to sit off the pace in both of Gun Runner’s Grade 1 wins at Saratoga in the Whitney and the Woodward. He reiterated that Gun Runner can stalk, if needed, when I interviewed him before the Breeders’ Cup. Geroux didn’t wait, in the BC Classic, though, and took it to the field from the gate, setting a fast pace and holding off all comers at the 1 1/4-mile distance. The cut back to 1 1/8 miles in the Pegasus should only help Gun Runner, as this is most likely his optimal distance.
There are four horses with enough early speed that may press Gun Runner or have designs on the lead. Our pace analysis will highlight these four: Collected, West Coast, Sharp Azteca, and Toast of New York.
Collected admirably kept company with Gun Runner every step of the BC Classic and gave way late to lose by 2 1/4 lengths in a strong runner-up finish. If Collected can run that race again, then the cut-back to 1 1/8 miles in the Pegasus should help him greatly, but the BC may have taken something out of him.
Collected’s return race in the Grade 2 San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita in mid-December was mind-boggling. Jockey Mike Smith took Collected to the back of the field, where he never looked comfortable before closing for a disappointing third-place finish as the 3/10 odds-on favorite. Trainer Bob Baffert has said that Collected wasn’t cranked for that race and that he’ll be much better here. Whether or not he has enough left in the tank to get back to his pressing or leading style in this contentious field is the main question.
West Coast is the other Baffert trainee in the Pegasus field. He sat close to Gun Runner in the cat-bird seat for most of the BC Classic, finishing a good third, but he never threatened the winner. If jockey Javier Castellano changes West Coast’s trip back to his running style in the Grade 1 Travers Stakes victory (where Smith rode him), then he may be more forwardly placed on the lead early, or at least to Gun Runner’s throat latch. Baffert had team tactics in place for the BC, and we may see a similar plan here.
The new face in the up-front scrum is Sharp Azteca. With possibly the best early speed of any horse in training, the mile specialist has shown a freakish ability to go extremely fast early and maintain it in races like the Grade 1 BC Dirt Mile (placing second) and the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap here a year ago (which he won). The whole pace of the Pegasus may be predicated on if/when Gun Runner engages Sharp Azteca and for how long. If they go eyeball to eyeball for an extended period of time, then both may exhaust each other, leading to a stalker like Collected or West Coast to pick them off late (assuming they sit off of the pace).
With Irad Ortiz, Jr., riding Sharp Azteca for the first time, it will be interesting to see if he runs freely. The Jorge Navarro trainee showed patience under Castellano in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile in his last start, sitting third early before pouncing and trouncing a salty field at Aqueduct to start December. It should be noted that Castellano chose West Coast over Sharp Azteca for the mount here. The stretch out to 1 1/8 miles may have been Castellano’s main concern. Sharp Azteca gave it up at the wire to Battle of Midway after going two turns in the BC Dirt Mile, so getting the extra 1/8-mile while going two turns again is a concern.
The biggest question mark in the Pegasus is what Toast of New York will do under international star jockey Frankie Dettori. If you remember, Toast of New York tracked the ultra-fast Bayern in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic and almost won the race, losing by a nose, so there’s reason to believe that he can hang with fast horses like Gun Runner or Sharp Azteca. The major question is if Toast of New York still has that zip coming off of a 1,130-day layoff (over three years) before returning last month on the all-weather Lingfeld track in England. Trainer Jamie Osborne has said that getting Toast of New York back is like a member of the family coming home, and that he’s showing the same ability that he showed when he was a few whiskers from winning the BC Classic while finishing ahead of top horses such as California Chrome and Shared Belief.
For a more in-depth look at the race, including pace and post position analysis predicting how the Pegasus World Cup Invitational will unfold, check out the official Pegasus World Cup Wagering Guide.