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Godolphin’s newly turned 4-year-old First Mission continued serious preparation for Gulfstream Park’s $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational (G1) on Jan. 27 with another five-eighths of a mile ‘bullet’ work Saturday at the Fair Grounds racetrack in New Orleans.
With exercise rider Kelvin Perez up, First Mission worked five furlongs in a minute flat, his 1:00 time the co-fastest among 50 works at the distance Saturday. First Mission’s 1:00.20 eight days earlier also was the bullet at five-eighths.
Regular jockey Luis Saez has the Pegasus mount.
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“He’s a great work horse,” said Brad Cox, a finalist to win his third Eclipse Award as North America’s outstanding trainer when the 2023 champions are announced two days before the Pegasus World Cup card. “He’s continued to do the same here at the Fair Grounds in preparing for the Pegasus. He looked fantastic this morning. We actually took him to the track today (jogging a mile Sunday) because we’re due some cold weather in the next few days and we may miss a day of training. But overall, super pleased with how he’s moving and how he physically looks and how he is acting. I think he’s set up for a big run to start his 4-year-old season.”
The 1 1/8-mile Pegasus will be First Mission’s first race since he was second by a nose to fellow Pegasus contender Trademark in Churchill Downs’ Clark (G2) the day after Thanksgiving in only his fifth career start. Keeneland’s Stonestreet Lexington (G3) winner in his third start, First Mission was scratched from the Preakness Stakes with a minor ankle issue before returning to Keeneland to win an allowance race off a six-month layoff.
“We obviously had a setback Preakness week,” Cox said earlier this month. “We gave him a little time and he came back and ran huge off the layoff there at Keeneland. To come back in a Grade 2, facing older horses and him just being 3 and as lightly raced as he is, I thought he ran huge. We think he’s a tremendous talent and we’re excited about 2024.”
The tradeoff for the disappointment of missing any Triple Crown race now figures to work in the First Mission team’s favor.
“He didn’t have to go through a tremendous amount as a 3-year-old, and we have a fresh horse,” Cox said. “He looks that way. He’s carrying good flesh, weight is great, attitude is good and he’s continuing to work very well.”
Cox, the Eclipse Award trainer in 2020 and 2021, won the 2021 Pegasus World Cup with eventual Horse of the Year Knicks Go, who came into the season’s first Grade 1 race for older horses on dirt off victory in the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1). Knicks Go capped his 2021 championship season with victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), then made his career finale before going to stud in the 2022 Pegasus, finishing second.
Cox also had the favorite in last year’s Pegasus World Cup, with multiple Grade 1 winner Cyberknife finishing sixth in his first and last start as a 4-year-old before going to stud.
Unraced at 2 and facing only his sixth career start, First Mission provides a much different scenario from either Knicks Go or Cyberknife.
“Knicks Go had a good start to his career but we picked him up when he 4, and he started rolling at 5,” Cox said. “We’re hoping First Mission can make that jump from 3 to 4. Like I said, he’s so lightly raced you’d think he’s going to improve physically and mentally and just figure out the game as he goes.
“Cyberknife never had a break. I think his run in the Pegasus may have been proof that he was just kind of flat and maybe ready for a break, though he’d trained well. Different approach with this horse also being 4 coming into it. Cyberknife was off to the stud after the race. First Mission is going to be off to stud, but we’re hoping it’s going to be next year.”
The Cox-trained Pennsylvania Derby (G1) winner Saudi Crown, also a Pegasus invitee, likewise worked Saturday at the Fair Grounds, his 1:00.20 the third-fastest at five furlongs that morning. Saudi Crown, whose FMQ Stables ownership is from Saudi Arabia, is entered in Saturday’s Louisiana Stakes with the intent of running there as a prep for the Saudi Cup in Riyadh on Feb. 24, Cox said.
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