HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – As Irad Ortiz, Jr. approached the top of the stretch at Gulfstream Park, he urged Mucho Gusto, who shot to the lead and breezed to victory in the fourth annual $3 million Pegasus World Cup.
Following the front running Mr. Freeze and Bodexpress throughout the race, the Eclipse Award-winning jockey swung the 4 year-old son of Mucho Macho Man out to the three path to challenge the leaders.
Like a slingshot, he blasted by the two and opened up through the final furlong to win the Grade 1 race. The winner’s share brought Mucho Gusto’s career earnings to $2,579,800.
The decision by Ortiz, Jr. to jump off Spun to Run, who ultimately scratched two days before the race, to ride for trainer Bob Baffert on Mucho Gusto, proved to be a lucrative one.
Two days after claiming thoroughbred racing’s highest award for a jockey he rode a masterful race getting to the rail from his outside post, where he hugged the rail on the speed favoring track before pouncing on his foes at the quarter pole.
“I had a great trip,” said Ortiz, Jr. “He got a great start and felt good. He relaxed so well and we were able to save ground. When I tipped him out he took off. He was much the best.”
Mucho Gusto returned $8.80 to his backers for the win, $5 to place and $3.80 to show. Mr. Freeze hung on for second and paid $7.60 for place and $5.20 to show.
War Story paid $6.80 to show and completed a $2 trifecta that paid $889.60 and Diamond Oops completed the superfecta. Post time and morning line favorite Higher Power finished last.
Mucho Gusto completed the nine furlong trek in 1:48.85, finishing ahead of Mr. Freeze by 4-1/2 lengths.
For Baffert, it was his second Pegasus win, after winning the inaugural race in 2017 with Arrogate and upped his career earnings in the race to $11.35 million.
“It’s the best he’s ever looked,” said Baffert by phone from California. “He looked great in the warm-ups and looked pretty natural.”
Mucho Gusto skipped the 2019 Kentucky Derby trail and returned to compete well in both the Haskell (second) and Travers (third) last summer against the top 3-year-olds such as Maximum Security and Code of Honor.
With the two scratches earlier in the week, including likely race favorite Omaha Beach, he was able to break from the No. 8 post instead of the 10-hole. Outside posts in 9-furlong races at Gulfstream can prove to be costly with the short turn to the first turn.
Baffert praised Ortiz, Jr. for the ride on Mucho Gusto, especially how he tactfully got his horse from being caught wide into that first turn.
“He has a lot of speed but the key was to get a good break and get over right away. I just left it up to him (Irad) to just keep him in the clear. He knows that track really well, that was just a great performance by him and the horse,” said Baffert. “He could have walked from the quarter pole.”
Baffert knew his colt had it in him to win a big race, this his first Grade 1 win on his resume. “He just showed, we always wanted to see him run a race like that,” said Baffert. “He’s been chasing some really good horses and it was a different field today.”
Baffert lamented not making the trip to the Hallandale Beach track after watching in on television. “When he tilted out at the quarter pole, all I could say was “Damn, I wish I would have flown down there! But it was pretty exciting.”
His sire, Mucho Macho Man, was a Florida-bred and a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, always had success at Gulfstream Park and his progeny didn’t disappoint on a beautiful day with a slight breeze that kept bettors and fans comfortable all day long.
Dale Romans, trainer of second-place finisher Mr. Freeze, couldn’t be more pleased with the effort of the 5-year-old son of To Honor and Serve out of a Tabasco Cat mare. He was beaming in the horse path leading to the saddling area at the South Florida track.
“Yes, that was the plan (to go to the front),” said Romans. “He was training as good as a horse can train and he ran huge. I thought he ran a beautiful race. We’ve had confidence in him and he ran the way we thought he could.”
Jockey Luis Saez was proud of his horse for holding on to the second place finish after leading most of the race on the front end.
“He never gave up. He was brave. He was trying very hard; I thought we were going to win for a second. He missed the break a little but then when he saw the clear he went pretty nice,” said Saez.
The $41,896,435 all sources handle on the afternoon was the second highest, just short of the $41,983,000 earned in 2018 and $4.1 million higher than last year.
Baffert mentioned during his media call that Mucho Gusto did not receive an invite to the inaugural Saudi Cup, a $20 million race being held on February 29 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. With the win in the Pegasus he hopes his phone rings with a coveted invite.
Racing in America now turns toward the Derby trail leading to the First Saturday in May which kicks off this year’s Triple Crown races.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.