This weekend, Gulfstream reprises the richest horse race in history: the Pegasus World Cup. Though Picks and Ponderings focuses mainly on three-year-old preps until the Chicago racing season resumes, this $16 million race for older horses has the attention of the racing world, and it has ours. Our preview features horse-by-horse commentary, as well as our customary selections and longshot.
GUN RUNNER hung a spectre over last year's running: an emergent threat to handicap-division titans Arrogate and California Chrome, he was instead confined to Fair Grounds after an equine herpes virus quarantine. Since then, both Arrogate and California Chrome have retired to the stud barn. GUN RUNNER has since ascended to the top of the handicap division, and will make his final career start in the Pegasus before retiring to stud at Three Chimneys Farm.
Four of the next five horses who chased GUN RUNNER home in the Breeders' Cup Classic last November will return to face him at Gulfstream: second-place COLLECTED, third-place WEST COAST, fourth-place WAR STORY, and GUNNEVERA, who dead-heated with Arrogate for fifth. WAR STORY also holds the distinction of being the only horse entered in both runnings of the Pegasus; fifth last year, the durable son of Northern Afleet has made a career out of invading the exotics in top handicap races year in and year out.
The Pegasus World Cup will be televised on NBC; the broadcast runs from 4:30-6:00pm EST on Saturday. In addition, Gulfstream Park streams all their races, including Saturday's stakes, on their website. On the radio, the Horse Racing Radio Network will broadcast the Pegasus World Cup from 4:00-6:00pm EST, streaming live on their website. That broadcast will also include several of the undercard stakes races: the W. L. McKnight Handicap (G3), La Prevoyante H. (G3), Hurricane Bertie S. (G3), and Fred Hooper S. (G3). Picks and Ponderings will offers selections in all undercard stakes races in a chart below.
Saturday, January 27: Gulfstream Park
Race 12: Pegasus World Cup (G1), one and one eighth miles on the dirt, four-year-olds and up, post time 5:35pm EST
- #1 SINGING BULLET (30/1) - "The house always wins" may hold water on the casino side of Gulfstream Park, but not so much on the horse racing side. SINGING BULLET is the house horse here, owned by Stronach Stables. But, unlike last year's offering (bona fide contender Shaman Ghost), they didn't bring SINGING BULLET into the picture until late in the game. Though he has an excuse for his disappointing fourth last out, his better running style has him shooting right to the front, on a pace that will be hotly contested. He looks a likely pace factor, but will need to take a quantum leap forward to be in the picture late.
- #2 WEST COAST (8/1) - Spoiler alert: here's my win bet. The 8/1 morning line looks a little optimistic here -- but with GUN RUNNER, COLLECTED, and SHARP AZTECA reasonably likely to take money, WEST COAST could still go off around 5/1 or 6/1 in this field. Yes, GUN RUNNER is the most likely winner in this field. Saying otherwise would be disingenuous. But, WEST COAST is the one who abounds with upside. The post draw is cozy: SINGING BULLET, the only horse inside of him, tends to send, giving him the ability to tuck in and track from the pocket. With all the speed, though WEST COAST could send to the front if he had to, he should be able to use his more typical stalk-and-pounce trip to his advantage here. Though he has tables to turn on GUN RUNNER and COLLECTED, both of them have questions -- questions more serious than "will he handle Gulfstream?", a question that pales in comparison to the relatively well-travelled WEST COAST's upside.
- #3 STELLAR WIND (30/1) - There are few horses I would rather see win this than STELLAR WIND, an ultra-game daughter of Curlin, and the only filly facing the boys in this year's Pegasus. Her entry is already a testament to the power of a $16 million purse, as the lads of Coolmore are willing to point a horse they purchased for $6 million as a broodmare to this race before she has her date with American Pharoah. But, it is hard to see STELLAR WIND winning here. There are mild positives: she has some pace versatility, and her mile and an eighth form is not as bad as her 4: 0-1-0 career line may make it appear. Yet, she will have to take a huge step forward off a non-effort in the Breeders' Cup Distaff (G1). And, she has done so much of her best work in short fields while pressing a leader, not the sort of trip she stands to get here.
- #4 SHARP AZTECA (6/1) - Gulfstream Park affinity is no question for SHARP AZTECA, and neither is class. The question is distance -- can this stone-cold one-turn miler hang at a mile and an eighth against true nine-furlong, even ten-furlong horses? Though he did not run badly in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (G1), he was beaten by Battle of Midway that day -- a stone-cold two-turn miler. In this race, where he'll be one of many pace factors in the field, going longer than he knows over a track configuration he does not favour? He's hard to like.
- #5 COLLECTED (8/1) - It's hard to hold the San Antonio (G2) flop against him. In a race where he looked the speed on paper, Mike Smith took him way back, and instead GIANT EXPECTATIONS danced on the front in a short field. If Mike Smith learned his lesson -- which it sounds like he did -- he should put COLLECTED a lot closer here. That may be his best place to be, but it won't be an easy place to be, with SINGING BULLET, SHARP AZTECA, GUN RUNNER, and perhaps even TOAST OF NEW YORK all there to ensure a hot pace. He stayed on well enough after a duel with GUN RUNNER in the Breeders' Cup Classic to suggest he can run on with the best of the best, but even if you give a mulligan for the San Antonio, it's hard to see COLLECTED doing better than an underneath share given that the front end may prove even more taxing.
- #6 GUNNEVERA (15/1) - This race drew a lot of pace. That, in itself, is not enough to put a closer in the mix; this is Gulfstream, after all. However? GUNNEVERA is as proven a Gulfstream closer as there is, and he has proven time after time that he can handle the surface and the short stretch beautifully. Rider Luis Saez is also a positive: an experienced Gulfstream rider, he has been firing at 22% this meet, including a seven-win Wednesday. If the Pegasus falls apart then GUNNEVERA could win. If speedy sorts stay on, he could still rally for a piece underneath.
- #7 FEAR THE COWBOY (30/1) - FEAR THE COWBOY gets a class test here; he has proven himself a perfectly solid Grade 3/Listed class horse, but this will be his first try against the top level and he will have to improve significantly to cut it here. To his credit he has a win going nine furlongs. He also has a 6: 4-1-1 record over Gulfstream's course; especially for a midpack to closing type, this is a serious positive for FEAR THE COWBOY. Yet, there are other closers in here likely to close more strongly, including another proven Gulfstream closer in GUNNEVERA. Sprinkle him in fourth or fifth on spread tickets, but that's as good as he looks likely to do.
- #8 WAR STORY (25/1) - Our Longshot Writer has been looking forward to this one's return to the Pegasus for a while, and is quite pleased to see how much speed drew into the race. WAR STORY is tactical enough to be effective from closer to the pace if he needs to be -- but here, he does not need to be. He can settle midpack, and he'll likely get the jump on true closers GUNNEVERA and SEEKING THE SOUL. WAR STORY has danced every dance, making a career of rallying for underneath shares against the top of the handicap division. A credible fifth in last year's running of the Pegasus, his fourth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic last year suggests that he should be in good enough form to improve position late as the ones fighting for the lead tire. A win would be difficult to see, but as a price for the exotics? It doesn't get more honest than WAR STORY.
- #9 TOAST OF NEW YORK (20/1) - TOAST OF NEW YORK has only run once on dirt, but that race was all class: a second-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic, right there in a photo finish with Bayern and California Chrome. (Get out your time machines, folks!) Back in training after a three-year lay that included a stint at stud in Qatar, TOAST OF NEW YORK would be an amazing story if he were to win the Pegasus. Unfortunately, a fairy tale ending looks unlikely. Though it would be a surprise to see him as swift as the front-end contingent of SHARP AZTECA, GUN RUNNER, SINGING BULLET, and possibly COLLECTED, he has enough affinity for the lead that he might try -- a taxing, and likely unfruitful, pursuit. Something like the trip he got in the 2014 Pacific Classic (G1), in which he rated and rallied to finish second behind Shared Belief, may serve him better. But, will he be ready to hold his own against the best of the American handicap division off one minor prep at Lingfield? Despite Jamie Osborne's best efforts, that seems a bridge too far.
- #10 GUN RUNNER (4/5) - GUN RUNNER is the one to beat here: the best-proven horse, and the one who dominated half this field two and a half months ago in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Seeing him win would be no surprise; even with a hot pace anticipated, GUN RUNNER knows how to survive a contested front end. But? At odds-on, there are a few reasons he may not be a mortal lock. The Twitter Discourse has been focusing on the unfavourable post, but that's the least of this space's concerns. There are other questions. He has never raced at Gulfstream, which can be a love-it-or-hate-it oval. And, trainer Steve Asmussen commented Monday that "we definitely had targeted peaking at the Breeders’ Cup Classic when we brought him back in training." This may be GUN RUNNER's grand finale, but is it one race too many?
- #11 SEEKING THE SOUL (25/1) - Stop me if you've heard this one: a Dallas Stewart Longshot comes rallying from off the pace at bomb odds for a piece underneath... Yes, that's something you've heard a few times on the first Saturday in May, but with so much speed in the Pegasus, SEEKING THE SOUL could be interesting. He keeps rider John Velazquez from a win in the Clark (G1), and has never missed the board in five tries at nine furlongs. His affinity for Gulfstream remains a question, as does his ability to fire first off a layoff since the Clark. But, if you're really spreading on those lower rungs of a trifecta or superfecta, SEEKING THE SOUL's late kick makes him worth inclusion at a price.
- #12 GIANT EXPECTATIONS (30/1) - He got everything his own way in the San Antonio last out, thanks to a creative ride by Gary Stevens. With far more speed in the field here, expect Giant Expectations to revert to his more typical off-pace style. But, the far outside post does not help, and there are better and more powerful closers who will be rallying late.
- #13 GIUSEPPE THE GREAT (also eligible) - To GIUSEPPE THE GREAT's credit, he has never missed the board in three starts at Gulfstream, and has hit the board in both his nine-furlong tries over fast dirt. But, he loses regular rider Luis Saez to better-proven contender GUNNEVERA, and has to take a huge step forward to be competitive here.
- #14 GAME OVER (also eligible) - Unraced since the Pennsylvania Derby (G1), GAME OVER would be facing older horses for the first time should he draw into the Pegasus. Though he has some tactical speed and a money finish going nine furlongs in the West Virginia Derby (G3), winning this from the far outside (or, frankly, any post at all) seems like too much to ask.
#2 WEST COAST (8/1)
#10 GUN RUNNER (4/5)
#6 GUNNEVERA (15/1)
Longshot: #8 WAR STORY (25/1)
Below are all of Nicolle Neulist's picks for the stakes races on Pegasus World Cup day at Gulfstream Park. This will be updated as they finish handicapping the card. If you have questions about the logic behind any of these picks, please leave a comment or tweet us at @picksponderings!
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