It may seem strange to say, but there was a time not too long ago when the winter was akin to a desert for older horses.
After the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), December, January, and February offered none of the seven-figure grade 1 stakes the connections of the sport’s brightest stars covet, prompting many of them to call it quits and send their prized runners to stud farms.
The Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes Presented by 1/ST BET (G1) at Gulfstream Park changed all of that when it was launched in 2017. With a $12 million purse funded by the owners of the starters, that potential for one last huge payday convinced the owners of California Chrome to run one last time before his life as a stallion began. It didn’t work out for him, as he finished ninth behind Arrogate, but the previous was set.
Gun Runner captures the 2018 Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park
A year later, Horse of the Year gun runner extended his career by one race to run in the Pegasus for a $16.3 million pot. Even as the Pegasus has been reduced to a $3 million purse, the 2020 emergence of the $20 million Saudi Cup in late February has turned winter and the start of spring into the richest time of year for older horses with a trio of options that includes the Jan. 29 Pegasus, the Feb. 26 Saudi Cup (G1), and the March 26 Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airlines (G1) for $12 million.
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Even without a calculator, horsemen can see that $35 million is now up for grabs during the winter wonderland for them and it’s hardly surprising to see that more and more of the top stars are staying in training for one more race or one extra season of racing , even with the high cost of insuring valuable racehorses.
“These winter races have been a game changer because it allows you to keep a horse in training and justify the expenses of the insurance and the risk that you take for the reputation of the horse,” said Elliott Walden, president, CEO, and racing manager of WinStar Farm. “I think fans don’t quite understand the financial commitment it takes to keep a horse in training. When you’re talking about a $15-20 million horse, the insurance premium on that is like having to win a million dollar race. It’s a $600,000 to a million dollar premium. That’s why the Pegasus and the races in the Middle East have really changed the landscape on being able to keep a horse in training.”
In Saturday’s Pegasus at Gulfstream Park, Knicks GB will become the latest star to take a final wintertime bow before becoming a stallion. Owned by the Korea Racing Authority, his connections wasted little time in targeting a farewell race in the Pegasus as they said immediately after the son of Paynter won the Classic to seal Horse of the Year honors that he would stay in training for a chance to record back-to-back wins in the Pegasus.
“We are looking forward to seeing Knicks Go race one last time in the Pegasus,” said Jun Park, racing manager for the KRA. “It will be an honor to run in the Pegasus once again.”
It will indeed be an honor and it may also be financially rewarding for the Brad Cox-trained 6-year-old with a winner’s purse of about $1.7 million on the line.
Fans will be rewarded with a blockbuster matchup to start the 2022 racing season in the Pegasus clash between Knicks Go and Big Ass Fans Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) winner Life Is Good .
“I have been in the game a long time and I am really excited,” said Mike Lakow, vice president of racing operations at Gulfstream Park. “With Flightline not running beyond seven furlongs, Knicks Go and Life Is Good are the two best horses in the country. Knicks Go I suspect will be Horse of the Year (when it is announced Feb. 10) and Life Is Good has a legitimate chance to be the top 3-year-old. I can’t wait for the race and to see them run.”
When the Pegasus concept was first announced in 2016 by Belinda and Frank Stronach, the thought was indeed to give the best horses a reason to continue racing. While that has happened, Gulfstream has spread the wealth by initiating the $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational Stakes Presented by Baccarat (G1T) in 2019 and adding the $500,000 TAA Pegasus World Cup Filly & Mare Turf Invitational Stakes Presented by PEPSI (G3T) this year.
Colonel Liam wins the 2021 Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational Stakes
Lakow said adding a filly and mare turf race as opposed to a dirt for that division came down to the prospects of a much larger field on turf than dirt.
“The Pegasus Turf has 12 horses and is a spectacular race. The Pegasus Filly & Mare Turf has 11 really good entrants for its first year,” Lakow said. “It’s a lot of work but when you get horses like this, it’s worth it. The idea came from (chairman, CEO, and president of 1/ST and The Stronach Group) Belinda Stronach and it’s been well-supported.”
Besides those three Pegasus races, which includes Colonel Liam seeking an encore win in the Pegasus Turf, the bright glare from having so many well-known grade 1 winners on hand has allowed Gulfstream Park to assemble an outstanding 12-race card with seven graded stakes.
“I can’t wait for this day of racing,” Lakow said.
While change came this year in the form of the Filly & Mare turf race, it will be interesting to see what happens in the future with the spacing of the Pegasus and the two international stakes.
At the moment, four weeks separates the Jan. 29 Pegasus and the Feb. 26 Saudi Cup, which does not leave much time for a horse to run in the Pegasus and travel to Saudi Arabia. That’s why Hot Rod Charlie and Mandaloon , in particular, skipped the Pegasus to run in the Saudi Cup.
Four weeks after the Saudi Cup, the Dubai World Cup follows on March 26, which in this day and age is a relatively short gap.
“In the future, I’d like to see more timing between the races so you can make a series out of it,” Walden said. “With travel from America it would be hard to run in both and the Pegasus. I think they are seeing that and you do see races change over the course of time. The Arkansas Derby (G1) is now five weeks before the Kentucky Derby ( G1) instead of the traditional three weeks. I hope you’ll see more spacing between the three races in the future.”
Spacing and different dates would help in creating a series since a horse who runs in the Saudi Cup would miss most if not all of that year’s breeding season due to quarantine issues and will typically race for the remainder of the year.
Yet stretching out the three races is problematic since each track offers its race on a date that has worked well for them. At Gulfstream, in particular, the date is about five weeks after the traditional Dec. 26 opening day at its sister track, Santa Anita Park, which has potential Pegasus preps that day in the Runhappy Malibu Stakes (G1) and the San Antonio Stakes (G2).
“We’re trying to use Santa Anita races as preps for our races, so that leads us to being four or five weeks off them and then we’re four weeks ahead of the Saudi Cup. If we move our race to create more time for the Saudi Cup, it wouldn’t work for the California horses and we certainly owe them a spot to run their better horses,” Lakow said. “Maybe that makes the Saudi Cup too close for some horsemen but they can use the Pegasus as a beautiful prep for the Dubai World Cup.”
Past experience and current plans indicate how agreeable Pegasus-to-Dubai path can be as Arrogate won both races in 2017 and Life Is Good is expected to target the Dubai race if all goes well Saturday and he thrives in the new winter wonderland for older horses .