Updated January 22, 2021 - 2:37 pm
The owners of Gulfstream Park have tried several ways to lure a young and well-heeled crowd to the Pegasus World Cup over its five-year existence — most of which had little to do with horse racing.
Concerts featuring top artists? Check. Ads featuring young adults in stylish threads partying like it’s 1999? Check, check and check.
Horses? A gigantic prop in the parking lot and a supporting actor in promotions. Jockeys? Trainers? Seldom seen.
I remember being offended in 2017 when The Stronach Group (TSG), owner of the South Florida racetrack, rebranded the Donn Handicap and began promoting the coolness of the sport without really talking about the animals or participants, including horse players.
Since then, however, I’ve mellowed.
Have I mentioned yet that Saturday’s 1⅛-mile Pegasus is one of the horse racing’s biggest races, with a purse of $3 million and a $1 million turf counterpart, both of which will be nationally broadcast by NBC Sports and TVG (1:30-3 p.m.). It also attracts many of the best older horses in North America, including this year’s star Knicks Go.
I thought not, but we’ll get back to that in a minute.
More important, this year’s promo video (viewable at pegasusworldcup.com) is a gem, exploring the dichotomy between being young and rich and finding yourself at a racetrack. Or at least that was my interpretation.
It’s the first effort at promoting the race to the younger crowd for 1/ST (pronounced “first), a new consumer-facing brand recently launched by TSG.
I/ST also will pioneer a new “second-screen experience” for those who won’t be in the limited crowd at the track: a livestream of jockeys’ helmet cams during the race on Facebook, starting at 2:30 p.m. PT.
1/ST CEO Paul Williams told me recently that the company also is investing in improving the production quality of horse racing coverage, including 4K cameras with definition far superior to full HD, new virtual reality experiences, redesigns of simulcast betting screens and improved audio.
“Our goal is to put the customer into the center of the race,” he said. “We need them feel that passion, strength, power and speed of our equine athletes.”
I don’t spend much time in South Florida — to my regret — so I can’t say how the strategy is working. But I know many critics say there’s no sign the young partyers who show up for the day become fans.
Still, I’m not going to fault TSG for trying to connect with a new generation of fans. The alternative is to watch the sport to continue to wither and eventually die.
Handicapping the race
It’s no secret that Knicks Go will try to wire the 12-horse field, but there are questions about his ability to last 1⅛ miles, which is about a football field farther than he has run in 17 career starts.
The son of Paynter may be 10 lengths clear at the top of the stretch and coast home, but it’s possible another horse will apply pressure earlier to see just what he is made of, leading to a cavalry charge in the stretch.
Trainer Brad Cox, an Eclipse Award finalist, didn’t win 1,481 races over his career by accident, and top jockey Joel Rosario will certainly be mindful of the need to save energy for the finish.
But it makes for a dicey betting proposition, and not one where you want to loosen the rubber bands on your bankroll.
Instead, just sit back and enjoy the show.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the number of races trainer Brad Cox has won in his career.
Ellis Starr’s Pegasus World Cup analysis
Knicks Go changed trainers to start his 2020 campaign, moving to the barn of Brad Cox, and went three-for-three last year, culminating with a career best 120 Equibase Speed Figure when winning the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile in wire-to-wire fashion. He had lost 10 races in a row before the first of his 2020 wins, but the turnaround was not out of the clouds as Knicks Go had been a top 2-year-old in 2018, winning the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity with the same running style as all three wins last year. Improving from a 104 figure effort in February of last year, to 116 then to the 120 in the Breeders’ Cup, and coming back off a two and one-half month rest, it is highly likely Knicks Go will be fresh and able to easily establish the early lead he likes. Horses that try to take on a front runner of his nature will likely find their chances compromised, and that makes Knicks Go the one to beat in this year’s Pegasus World Cup Invitational. Furthermore, he’s been working out steadily (every six to seven days) for his comeback and although he has never run the 1 1/8th mile distance of the Pegasus, Knicks Go has the breeding to succeed at the trip as a son of Paynter, who finished second in the 2012 Belmont Stakes at the distance of 1 1/2 miles.
Last Judgment, Harpers First Ride and Sleepy Eyes Todd all must be considered contenders to win the Pegasus World Cup, although they have less probability to win than Knicks Go based on the likely pace scenario in this race in which Knicks Go controls the tempo from the start. Nevertheless, with all three likely to go to post at high odds, I would not hesitate to bet them.
I’ll start with Last Judgment, who has won six of 14 races including his only try at the distance of this race. That win came in his most recent start just seven days ago when dominating in the Sunshine Classic Stakes by six lengths. That effort tied his career best 107 figure and he has won while racing on the lead or from off the pace so he could be finishing very well in this race.
Harpers First Ride is another horse who knows where the finish line is, having won 10 of 17 career starts. First or second in his last six races, including the Pimlico Special last fall at the distance of 1 3/16ths of a mile, Harpers First Ride earned a career best 109 figure in winning the Native Dancer Stakes in his most recent race.
Sleepy Eyes Todd earned the biggest win of his career in the Charles Town Classic Stakes last August at the distance of the Pegasus. He ran poorly when shipped to California for the Awesome Again Stakes the next month but has won both starts since then, including the Mr. Prospector Stakes at Gulfstream. The 119 figure earned in the Charles Town Classic was a career best and the highest figure of any horse other than Knicks Go (120 in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile) has ever earned, so if he can repeat that effort Sleepy Eyes Todd could give Knicks Go a run for the winner’s share of this $3 million purse.