The best faced the best and all the star performers actually gave their best when asked for it. It was Thoroughbred Theater at its best.
Fans were left thirsting for more of the same and Frank Stronach’s Pegasus stood poised to deliver the remunerative rematch designed to divert would-be stallions from lucrative liaisons.
The confrontation was expected to exhibit not only equine excellence but an entertaining clash of cultures and providing a mixture of motives and machinations among the connections.
Executed in the shadow of the enormous extravagance that enshrines Stronach’s love of all things equine, an enthusiastic elite embraced elevated attendance expenses which begs a question:
Can excessive pricing be expected to rekindle interest in Thoroughbred racing?
The event was well-promoted, albeit narrowly targeted, including a self-financed network telecast. Avid horseplayers anticipated attractive betting opportunities among an ample supply of undercard stakes, including a final Pick Four with 12 horses per leg and preceded by a maiden race with 14 runners to begin a second Pick Five.
Although the weather in the Sunshine State lived up to its billing, the rematch of Eclipse Award winners did not. While the consistent brilliance of Arrogate continued to be confirmed, the familiar quickness and stamina of two-time Horse-of-the Year, California Chrome, failed to materialize in his final on-track appearance.
Post-race reports from Chrome’s connections indicated the horse sustained an injury to its knee.
While some may be willing to write off that result to misfortune, it could be argued that the conditions of the race were indirect contributors given the extraordinary influence of an enormous entry fee and purse to the winner.
As misfortune had it, Chrome was stranded in the outside post in a full field with ample early speed inside him to overcome a position so close to the first turn.
Indeed it would have unfairly penalized any entrant unlucky enough to draw it, with the possible exception of a deep closer.
Under different circumstances the horse might have been scratched to run another day rather than face such a proven obstacle as well as a freakishly talented rival.
But there would be no refund for the million-dollar entry fee so, counter to the animal’s best interests, Chrome started as planned.
We’ll never know for certain how or when the alleged injury occurred. Maybe it was it during the all-or-nothing-at-all run to the first turn but perhaps a predisposing weakness developed earlier, even if his local workouts were counter-indications that nothing was amiss.
Dreams and Schemes and Circus Crowds
With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, it seems reasonable to challenge the wisdom of Chrome’s paid workout at Los Alamitos against far inferior opposition and ask why he was put in a position to break a track record while extremely wide all the way around.
Why subject the animal’s bones to stress for a winner’s share of $50,000 when the main objective was a share 140 times greater? One possible answer is the increased value of a track record on his stallion resume.
“Thank you Los Al” came off as a hard sell to us.
Personally, the running of the Pegasus World Cup left a familiar bad taste in my mouth. To me, it Big Brown’s Belmont redux, or Looking at Lucky’s Kentucky Derby disaster.
While the heralded co-headliner that was expected to win actually did, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was Chrome’s connections that compromised him most.
‘To say "I [pick] you" right out loud’
One of the surprises was Neolithic’s third place finish at 23-1 just ahead of his 16-1 stablemate Keen Ice, whom I had considered to be the unintended beneficiary of the former’s early speed as they are owned by separate interests.
Another was Breaking Lucky’s odds of 70-1 following his Grade 1 placing in the Clark compared to 20-1 for his established rival, Shaman Ghost, who had finished third in the same race. The former became my focus but he failed to fire, finishing eighth while the latter finished second for the event’s creator.
“I’ve looked at [luck] from both sides now”
At the end of the day, several developments were clear:
A. The wagering total exceeded $40M with half bet on the PWG.
B. A great horse gave a great performance.
C. The rich got richer.
D. The foolish got fleeced.
E. The event was declared a phenomenal success, at least by the connections of the top two finishers, and -- too often – by a fawning media.
In my opinion, the Pegasus model has yet to prove its viability for the future. It succeeded this year because:
1) The best thoroughbred since Secretariat was able to participate.
2) The most beloved horse in America was able to participate.
3) There were no scheduling conflicts to divert eligible participants.
4) Novelty has its own appeal.
5) The driving force behind it, the most influential individual in racing, was able to marshal all the necessary ancillary resources and was given the benefit of the doubt by deep-pocketed, curious risk-takers.
Fundamental flaws in funding and fairness which had been identified beforehand will require correction before the risk-takers ante-up again. Consequently, the distance of the race at Gulfstream Park will likely be expanded to 9.5 furlongs, and the purse distribution more variably tied to order of finish.
If Arrogate remains available for next year’s renewal, doesn’t his presence virtually take the top prize off the table? Will 11 other “investors” still be willing to risk $1 million for possible representation of some other 99-1 shot?