HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – It’s not often that thoroughbred racing gets the matchup that it wants.
In 2010, racing fans were denied seeing future Hall of Famers Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra tangle at Oaklawn. In 2008 a race between Curlin and Big Brown just never materialized.
This afternoon in South Florida, a rematch between the top two horses in the world in Arrogate (7-5) and California Chrome (6-5) will take center stage. Not only do we get the big tilt between these two racing behemoths, but It just happens to be in the world’s richest horse race.
The inaugural $12 million Pegasus Cup, where the winner will walk away with a cool $7 million, will be run over 1 1/8-miles over the Gulfstream Park oval before a nationally televised audience on the flagship NBC network.
Post time for the Pegasus is 5:40 p.m. ET.
The creation of Frank Stronach, where each of the 12 stakeholders paid $1 million for a gate, is the first of its kind and kicks off the 2017 racing year with a bang. The second-place finisher will collect $1.75 million, third will pay $1 million and the fourth through 12th finishers make $250,000.
The race is one furlong shorter than the Breeders’ Cup Classic and will be contested over a track that the top two have never raced over. In November, Arrogate overcame Chrome in deep stretch to complete a sweep of the Travers and the Classic on his way to the 3-year-old male crown he was honored with last week.
Chrome will be looking for revenge in his last start for trainer Art Sherman, after a stupendous career that includes wins in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Dubai World Cup and the Pacific Classic. His career earnings top all thoroughbreds with $14.5 million. A win in the Pegasus would give him total earnings north of $20 million, a figure that may never be matched.
The two-time Horse of the Year drew the far outside post, reminiscent of Big Brown, who drew post No. 12 in the Florida Derby and romped to victory on his way to the Derby. With speed similar to Big Brown, California Chrome’s backers shouldn’t be too concerned by the outside post despite the poor record of previous starters from that spot.
Trainer Art Sherman while feeling unlucky with the outside draw, wasn’t fazed by it. “He is just a push button horse. You can get your position coming out of there. He’s got enough early speed to put him any place you want to,” said Sherman.
He thinks that the rematch with Arrogate ends up differently this time, going the shorter distance.
“Well, I think he’s going to be a little bit more focused this time, it’s a little shorter distance, and the stretch is a little shorter,” said Sherman. “With Chrome, you have tactical speed. So I’d look for him – when he’s turning for home and in a position to open up, I think you’re going to see a different horse, I really do.”
Chrome has little speed inside of him and should be able to clear most of the field and get himself a position to avoid being caught wide on the clubhouse turn. Arrogate, on the other hand, drew the rail, and should be able to save ground around the typically speedy track.
Arrogate’s jockey Mike Smith hinted to the national media in a teleconference earlier in the week that his colt could duplicate his Travers effort where he broke from the rail.
“He’s been training very aggressive in the morning, so he’s going to be aggressive leaving there being in the one hole,” said Smith. “So whether that puts him up there like he was in the Travers or sitting off him, we won’t know until you leave there, you know?”
The race has a local flavor to it, as two of the horses that contended in the 2015 Prince of Wales Stakes at Fort Erie Race Track have one of the coveted $1 million starting gates.
Breaking Lucky (25-1), the winner of the second jewel of Canada’s Triple Crown two years ago, will be racing for a partnership consisting of Reeves Thoroughbreds, West Point Thoroughbreds Gunpowder Farms and R.A. Hill Stable. The West Point partnership group that bought an interest in the 5-year-old includes legendary racecaller Tom Durkin.
The Reade Baker-trained son of Lookin at Lucky will have talented Woodbine jockey Luis Contreras aboard. Baker has been thrilled with his training up to the Pegasus. “He’s really good right now, a big sound, healthy horse,” said Baker.
West Point Managing Partner Terry Finley explained why his group invested in Breaking Lucky to run in the Pegasus. “$12 million will get your attention,” said Finley. “We’re guilty as charged when people say we want to run on big days. It’s a lot of fun, the partners love it and there’s a lot of sizzle. We are very happy to be part of it.” Finley went on to discuss why the Pegasus concept made sense to him.
“I give all the credit to The Stronach Group and the 11 other stakeholders that put their money where their mouth is. We are a business that talks about trying being forward and doing new things to appeal to the next generation of our fans. This is certainly going to do it. The fact that we had 12 people in our industry that wrote a check for $1 million, I can’t say enough about them,” said Finley.
The other horse that competed at Fort Erie, 2015 Queen’s Plate winner Shaman Ghost (20-1) will be in Post No. 7 for trainer Jimmy Jerkens. He missed the Classic in November when he came down with a fever on the eve of the race. The son of Ghostzapper has a closing style that will require a very hot pace for him to bring his best running late.
Jerkens also complimented the race organizers for keeping racing relevant for older horses. “Anything that can keep the older horses around longer is a good idea,” he said.
It’s kept California Chrome around for one more race as a 6-year-old, almost unheard of in this day. The race could also set the stage for Arrogate to define his legacy as one of the all-time greats and start off a 4-year-old season that could culminate in back-toback Classics.
For a race named after a wingedhorse of Greek mythology, I’m looking for the classiest two horses to be flying to the wire.
Post Time Outlook: 1 -Arrogate, 2-California Chrome, 3-Breaking Lucky, 4-Shaman Ghost.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.