Thoroughbred racing is pretty much forgotten this time of year. The Breeders’ Cup is over. The Eclipse Awards have been announced. Kentucky Derby preps have yet to crank up. Unless you’re a dedicated handicapper, there’s not much to grab the average fan’s attention — until now.
Frank Stronach had an idea. How about a race with a $12 million purse? How about a race with $7 million awarded to the winner? Now get this: How about a race where each of the 12 participants dig into their fat wallets and put up $1 million apiece for the entry fee?
Now there’s a novel idea worthy of notice.
What was proposed last January comes to fruition Saturday with the debut of the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Park., Fla., with 12 horses covering a mile and an eighth on the dirt in what is now the world’s richest Thoroughbred race. NBC has the telecast from 4:30 to 6 p.m.
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For his grand opening, Stronach, who owns Gulfstream, Santa Anita and several other tracks, is blessed by good timing. The Pegasus’ initial running features a much-anticipated rematch between 2014 Kentucky Derby winner and 2016 Horse of the Year California Chrome, who will race for the final time Saturday, and newly minted World’s Best Racehorse Arrogate, who bested Chrome by a half-length in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.
As memorable as Saturday’s race promises to be, however, it’s the concept that is more interesting, starting with Stronach’s almost off-the-cuff proposal at a speaking engagement, where he talked about coming up with a race/event more lucrative than the $10 million Dubai World Cup or the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Soon fantasy forged reality. Last May, shares in the race were sold to a dozen ownership groups, with the understanding that a share could be sold, leased, etc. Stronach’s offer to buy three shares himself if demand was lacking proved to be unnecessary. The 12 spots sold quickly.
Such is the Pegasus’ unusual twist. The race doesn’t necessarily feature the 12 best horses currently in training. Instead, it features 12 groups sharing ownership in the race, including all its revenue generated from ticket sales, betting handle, marketing promotions and media rights fees.
Under the agreement, the initial dozen get first crack at next year’s race, which Stronach has hinted might be run at Santa Anita. And there’s already talk of a Pegasus World Cup for the turf, which would feature a similar ownership setup and attract more international involvement.
This wouldn’t be horse racing without some controversy, however. Mike Repole, one of the game’s more prolific owners, told the Daily Racing Form, “I just don’t like the idea of owners funding the purse.” The race’s marketing arm produced a short film series that featured UFC champion Conor McGregor riding nude on a horse.
Meanwhile, several of the original dozen have either sold or leased their Saturday spots, including Coolmore, which sold its share to Juddmonte on Dec. 22. That meant Arrogate could participate.
Then there’s Perry Martin, co-owner of California Chrome along with Taylor Made Farm. Martin created a stir at the Eclipse Awards with a rambling, embarrassing six-minute speech in which he aired three years of grievances.
When all is said and done, however, is the Pegasus a good idea?
“It’s good, period, for racing to have these types of purposes,” trainer Todd Pletcher told the Paulick Report. “But it’s also good to keep the better horses around and give fans more time to follow them.”
Prime example: California Chrome. Were it not for Saturday’s purse, the champion would be at Taylor Made for stallion duties. He’s already booked to 120 mares. They must wait, however, until fans of the sport can see Chrome and Arrogate face each other one last time.
Anything that makes that happen, or gets the sport some publicity in the dead of winter, can’t be bad.
Pegasus World Cup Invitational
When: 5:40 p.m. Saturday
Where: Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla.
TV: NBC-18 (4:30-6 p.m.)
Favorite: California Chrome
Purse: $12 million
Distance: 1 1/8 miles