At last season’s Fasig-Tipton Florida sale, I ran into racing monarch Frank Stronach and was honored with a few minutes of his time. On that evening, he outlined his vision of the inaugural Pegasus World Cup, which was to be held one year hence. I listened with great interest, and while I also felt tremendous admiration and reverence for the concept and its founder, I must admit like many others, I had some reservations. Fast forward to January 28, 2017, that initial doubt was but a memory. Mr. Stronach’s vision crystallized in the moment that California Chrome strutted into Gulfstream Park’s walking ring ahead of the inaugural Pegasus. Engulfed by a backdrop of humanity, the champion was greeted by a rousing welcome from the crowd and I must admit, I felt myself get goosebumps and even a touch weepy. And why not? Yes, I am an industry professional, and have been for many years now, but I am also a fan. It was that moment that I not only understood, but in fact felt the spirit in which the race was conceived. While the final act did not shine favorably on the outgoing champion, it certainly paved the way for a new rising star.
The week leading up to the Pegasus World Cup was chocked full of action and intrigue. California Chrome joined the Southern Florida fray early and, every morning before day break, the media would station themselves nearby in anticipation of the champ’s preparatory activity. As was the case in days and months past, trainer Art Sherman and his support team were warm, welcoming and hospitable. In fact, throughout the Kentucky Derby winner’s racing career, Sherman and his staff carried themselves in a fashion that exemplified true grace and class; a role that a few others might stand to take note of. On the final two mornings ahead of the race, the striking chestnut worked his way back, a little hot for my liking, but still looked the picture of health. Equally impressive yet, conversely, seemingly unflappable was Arrogate. I had not seen Juddmonte’s champion sophomore since his win at Santa Anita in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and I must admit, I was really wowed by him this time around. In the mornings after his arrival at Gulfstream, he looked like a rock star. Cool, calm and collected, and he too looked the part of a champion. I think the thing that impressed me most was witnessing him on the track. His fluidity and efficiency of motion is really something that must be seen to be truly appreciated. It almost looks like he is moving on a conveyer belt when he is in motion. And his class is blatantly obvious, from his intelligent eye through to the ease of his movement. As one might tell, I’m a big fan. The scary thing about him is that he appears to still be developing and improving. In the aftermath of American Pharoah and that whirlwind ride many of us undertook in 2015, it comes as a welcome continuation if not a substitution.
Pegasus Day Dawns
The big day arrived and much of the pre-race day concerns, voiced by some in the weeks and days leading up, just never seemed to materialize. With several VIP facilities and events going on simultaneously at Gulfstream on Pegasus day—including a rooftop concert, a VIP corporate party in 10 Palms—most other facilities and dining rooms were filled to capacity. Included among the stars (of the human variety) to make an appearance on raceday were Usher (Usher); Karen Martinez; Gene Simmons; Emmanuelle Chriqui (remember Sloan from Entourage??); Vanessa Hudgens and Karolina Kurkova. Not bad for a day at the races.
The day’s turnout logged in at about 16,000, well under Florida Derby day which typically draws over 20,000. However, the initial reservations many held regarding the steep cost of admission and premium prices set on dining and seating didn’t hold much water when all was said and done, because the day enjoyed a strong turnout regardless, minus the mob scene that likely would have arisen without those moderating factors. In effect, keeping tickets at a premium, kept the numbers to a manageable level where one could attend and enjoy the amenities and events without having to battle a throng. As is the case with any large event, there were likely a few kinks to work out for next year, however, it appeared that this inaugural Pegasus proved to be a fait accompli for organizers.
The Main Event
Punctuating the deep card, the pre-Pegasus atmosphere can best be described in one word–electric. While Chrome’s entrance into the walking ring was seismic, Arrogate’s arrival was greeted in a little more reserved fashion. Regardless, every bit of real estate—whether in or on the periphery of the paddock—was replete. As always, the paddock scene represented a who’s who of racing. Juddmonte Farm–owner of Arrogate–was well represented, as was the California Chrome team. Additionally, Neolithic waved the flag for Starlight Racing, and the partnership’s principal—Jack Wolf—busily made the rounds as not only a participant, but also as the event’s director. Not surprisingly, Gulfstream Park’s perennial leading trainer Todd Pletcher was represented in the Pegasus by two runners; Neolithic and Travers winner, Donegal Racing’s Keen Ice. It’s hard not to imagine that given the class and quality in the field that the contestants wouldn’t look tremendous, however, the horse that truly took my breath away pre-race was Frank Stronach’s very own Shaman Ghost. Trained by Jimmy Jerkens, I had the pleasure of watching this horse work up to the race for the preceding few weeks and what I saw on raceday was a testament to the talents of his overseer. People often start or end an introduction with ‘son of the legendary Hall of Famer Allen Jerkens’, however, what I have come to learn is that Jimmy is a veritable stalwart and horseman in his own right. Without a doubt, he has acquired much from his father, and has successfully integrated it into his own personal style. Jimmy has already established himself as one of the most proficient horsemen out there and Shaman Ghost’s tremendous performance in the Pegasus once again punctuated that point.
The Pegasus itself turned out to be a formful race for the most part, with the sole exception being California Chrome’s inexplicably dull performance. While Arrogate continued to take things with his customary ease and grace, Chrome didn’t pack the same punch we have become accustomed to enjoying. Whether it was a signal that he would rather be canoodling with high-class and well-bred mavens or simply had an off day, many thought it to be a somewhat anti-climactic end to a fairytale run for the champ. Personally, I felt it represented the passing of the torch from the old guard to the new, ushering in the latest era of racing’s newest celebrity. Whatever the interpretation, one thing remains clear: the lofty vision Frank Stronach dreamed of all those months ago came to fruition in grand style on the back of a winged horse.