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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing

BUOYED BY A STRONG SUPPORTING PROGRAM, PEGASUS EVENT DAY HAS COME FULL CIRCLE

HALLANDALE BEACH, January 29, 2024 – As was noted in HRI’s lead-up to the Pegasus World Cup Invitational, there were no marquee equines entered in the eighth renewal of America’s second richest race for open class dirt runners. But there was at least one coming out.

And so goes the postulate that National Treasure will continue to mature and develop after scoring a first rate victory in his first start as a newly turned four-year-old. Runners with his speed and class can step to the fore, as the 2023 Preakness hero surely promised on Saturday.

The pace was strong, making the trip arduous but manageable given his skills. Anytime a runner is asked to stalk fast fractions and hold off late ralliers deserves any kudos coming his way.

Fresh and sharp, Bob Baffert had him fit for the task. Now the controversial Hall of Famer has the luxury of time to add to a Classic winner’s burgeoning resume.

Presuming good health and continued development for both, National Treasure vs. White Abarrio would be a meeting worth anticipating. Of course, Rick Dutrow’s horse first will be seeking the lion’s share of $20-million worth of blood money in the Saudi desert, FEB 24.

There is no question that the oil-glutted Saudis have made an impression on several sports worldwide. Using athletics to bolster its outlaw image, they have learned that by putting up generational stupid money, many will come.

Frank Stronach had the right idea a decade ago, offering a huge winner-take-all pot to American champion swan-songers and reputation-building late bloomers seeking a grand payday by successfully taking on the big hoss.

Three-million dollars isn’t 12, but neither is it a mere bag of shells.

So whether it be a great way to send champions on to a second career, or a launchpad to legendary achievement, the Pegasus program is turning out to be a bit of both.

Aidan O’Brien’s Warm Heart, beneficiary of deft handling from world champion rider Ryan Moore, went home a winner of over 2.3 million career dollars via three Group 1 victories and narrow defeats in the F & M Turf and prestigious Hong Kong Vase–getting her revenge vs males Saturday in course record time.

A start in the Pegasus World Cup does not preclude a repeat effort in the Saudi Cup as it precedes the rumble in Riyadh by four weeks and the Dubai World Cup by eight. So the timing is do-able, even if a bit close by today’s conservative standards.

But in this age of burgeoning international competition, the spacing might be OK but class level is exponentially deeper. The raids made by the Europeans and Japanese a half century ago, purchasing the best Kentucky blood money could buy, are paying huge latter-day dividends.

The notion that Pegasus works because of its timing and prestige makes it likely that its appeal will continue to grow. The day works based on appropriate matrices, for one it attracted over $47.3 million in horse play.

Aesthetically, there were no Arrogate’s, or Gun Runner’s, or Knicks Go’s to ogle at, and nine furlongs in 1:50.51 does not invite hyperbole but, as the racetrackers say: Run too fast early can’t run too fast late.

While early speed, position-types dominated the day, kick-back hurt potential late ralliers.

We mentioned to several handicapping colleagues pre-race that empiricism caused me to observe that shippers were not transitioning well as they traditionally have in the past. Perhaps the kick-back, termed “abrasive” by several horsemen, takes some getting used to.

Prior to learning that the kick-back was noted in several quarters post-race, it was clear to this observer that second favorite First Mission was not handling the surface at all, noted when he could not secure an attending position into the backstretch.

Brad Cox offered post race that First Mission was not handling the track, an observation that synched-up with our own. His was no trainer-speak mea culpa.

Senor Buscador had never raced here either, but Todd Fincher apparently knew better, giving his six-year-old four timed workouts over the strip dating back to DEC 18, the moves good enough to earn wise-guy status. He showed it by making a winning effort, just missing after a noteworthy long, sustained rally.

In the end, Pegasus came full circle, transitioning from a $12 million put-up-or-shut-up colossus into a mega-event day featuring a $3 million linchpin, a $1 million open turf event, and a $500,000 distaff version of same, a card with the kind of international appeal that could fuel future growth.

THEY SAID IT …

In all, the Pegasus World Cup card featured seven graded stakes worth an aggregate $5.2 million. The Pegasus Filly & Mare Turf provided Win-and-You’re-In” status in the Qatar Nassau Stakes at ‘Glorious Goodwood’ in July and a $25,000 travel stipend.

However, it was a maiden allowances for three-year-old colts at 7 furlongs that produced one of the day’s truly memorable performances:

“[The winner] had been training very well,” said trainer Todd Pletcher of Speak Easy … “It looked like a loaded race on paper,” including Mage’s brother Victory Avenue. Last year’s Kentucky Derby winner used this event to spring-board his 2023 season.

“[Speak Easy] broke alertly and was able to move outside the favorite [Victory Avenue]. They were rolling right along. I don’t know how fast the track is today, but 1:21 and four is a pretty good debut time no matter how the track is playing.”

Not only was it fast but it was done the right way. He stalked the choice comfortably, moved to challenge on his own at headstretch and drew off late, ridden out by Irad Ortiz–his first of five program winners–after splits of 22.64, 21.97, 24.42 and 12.93. Wow.

Said Aidan O’Brien of Warm Heart’s rider: “Ryan [Moore] obviously gave her an incredible ride… For her to go off now to Justify is just so exciting. She’s absolutely made for him … Ryan was always very anxious that she went there for that race. We enjoyed watching it. I wish I was there …

“He’s incredibly professional, the way he analyzes everything. His fitness and experience are incredible. He sums up everything so well. Incredibly hard on himself, he doesn’t forgive himself for anything, but I think that’s what makes him the rider he is.”

Of the filly: “Ryan said it just didn’t work for her the last race but she’s tactical, she’s tough, and she quickens. She doesn’t do an awful lot when she gets there but that’s the way she’s always been …

“She’s won two other Group 1s [in Europe] and big ones, as well. She’s shown everything. She’s tough, she’s durable, she travels, she’s sound, handles all types of ground, she’s tactical … We feel very privileged to be part of her story.”

Frankie Dettori, aboard show finisher Catnip: “He was very good to me. I had good position in fourth. I had to use a bit of energy to get into position. At the top of the lane I thought I’d win … With a better post, it could have been a different story.”

Said Ignacio Correas IV of Didia and her Pegasus F & M triumph, her sixth victory in eight starts since shipping to America in 2022: “It’s very exciting,” said Correas. “It’s our first time coming here, and it’s really great …”

Said rider Jose Ortiz: “We thought that she was going to run off like she did in California,” that she was going to go off in :46 or something, but she didn’t …

“When I hit the first turn, I knew we were going very reasonable and I was able to take the position that I did … She put her ears up on the backside. I was head-to-head but she was relaxed … The other horses started gaining more ground but she was already on the end.”

Surprisingly, off a 25-1 beneath Oisin Murphy, is a Phipps Stable homebred purchased by Repole Stable for $1 million at auction in November, was making her first start for trainer Todd Pletcher.

“She closed really well,” Pletcher said. “The fractions were pretty soft. She was at a disadvantage … [Murphy] worked his way over … She didn’t break well. He kind of tucked her in and she worked her way through horses. Then he found a seam. She ran well.”

Added Correa: “I think that Didia’s better than I ever imagined … “She can do whatever. When you think that she was running a mile and a quarter and them come and put in such a performance almost wire to wire close to the lead, these horses they just train themselves. We just need to stay out of the way.”

Said Irad Ortiz Jr. of William L McKnight winner Francesco Clemente: “He had everything against him and he still won easy. He opened up on the end. He missed the break, tight turns, short stretch and still got there. He made it look easy.”

Added trainer Chad Brown: “He ran great. He did go wide that last turn but he saved so much ground in the first two turns that you are able to lose some significant ground in the last turn if you have a horse that is good enough, and he is … He’s a serious horse.”

Said trainer Brian Lynch of Fred W Hooper winner Tumbarumba:  “He’ll be pointed toward the Pat Day Mile on [Kentucky] Derby day. He’ll have another race here on Florida Derby day or Fountain of Youth day, I’m sure. He showed that he’s a legit horse at the Grade 3 level so we’ll try to knock out another one here.”

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