Michael McCarthy stood under the overhang at the far end of the grandstand in the horsemen’s viewing area, his eyes fixed on the infield monitor for much of the time it took the Pegasus World Cup field to splash their way 8 of the 9 furlongs of the $9 million headliner in the dim daylight Saturday at Gulfstream Park.
Stoic while everyone around him hooted and hollered while City Of Light slammed the door on his 11 opponents in North America’s richest race, McCarthy eventually allowed himself a glance down at the track. He saw City Of Light, a horse he called a “gift” making his final start, doing exactly what he thought he could do and burying a field that included a champion and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, seven other millionaires and three Grade 1 winners.
City Of Light and Javier Castellano rolled toward the illuminated finish line well clear of Seeking The Soul and Accelerate and at that moment, and not a moment sooner, McCarthy allowed a smile. He followed that by looking to his right, not finding much of an opening to walk downstairs before stepping on a chair and then a table, pointing toward the finish post and letting out a yell.
McCarthy dashed down the steps, his light blue plaid suit jacket immediately pocked with raindrops that filled much of the skies on the third Pegasus Day.
“He give it every time, that he does,” McCarthy said at the bottom of the steps.
McCarthy walked onto the sloppy and sealed racing surface at the gap where the non-winners unsaddle, accepting congratulations all the way and walked up the stretch to meet William and Suzanne Warren’s bay horse who saved his best performance for his final race in 11 starts. City Of Light won the Pegasus World Cup by 5 3/4 lengths in 1:47.71, his second straight Grade 1 score after taking the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile in November at Churchill Downs. Officially retired as expected the day after the Pegasus, the 5-year-old son of Quality Road joins his sire at Lane’s End as a Grade 1 winner at 7, 8 and 9 furlongs.
McCarthy, who asked Castellano to jog City Of Light up the stretch for one final round of applause from the rain-soaked fans along the rail, joked with Lane’s End’s Bill Farish when he reached the winner’s circle to celebrate with the other connections.
“Hey Bill, I’m sorry he didn’t get there sooner but I had this in the back of my mind all the time,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy no doubt knew City Of Light was capable of a performance like the Pegasus. He won the Grade 1 Malibu and Triple Bend going 7 furlongs at Santa Anita Park, handed Accelerate his only defeat in the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap going 9 furlongs and arguably turned in the most impressive victory of Breeders’ Cup Weekend in the Dirt Mile.
The Pegasus took things to another level and City Of Light left no doubt, not unlike the race’s previous two winners Arrogate and Gun Runner.
McCarthy did allow some doubt to creep in and no one would be surprised to know it came after the skies opened in South Florida Friday night into Saturday morning, leaving a morass for Gulfstream’s biggest event of the season.
“We knew this horse was ready, but when you throw in the rain you never know,” Erin McCarthy, the trainer’s wife of nearly 10 years, said after an emotional post-race press conference. “He came back to the hotel this morning and said, ‘I don’t know, I’ve done everything I can do. I didn’t know this rain was coming in and I hope he likes it.’ ”
City Of Light answered that question and backed up his trainer’s quiet confidence evident all winter and especially in the week leading up to the Pegasus. City Of Light trained with the same purpose he’d shown wherever he went in 2018, whether it be Santa Anita, Oaklawn, Del Mar, Saratoga or Churchill. He threw down a half-mile breeze in :47.26 at Gulfstream the week before the Pegasus and got people asking whether he’d be the post-time favorite over Accelerate.
“I was quietly confident all week that the horse would run well,” McCarthy said. “We kind of followed the same routine as we did at Churchill Downs when he won the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. I was very happy with how he worked here last Saturday. … Javier worked him wonderfully.”
City Of Light’s dominating victory marked the latest peak in the continual rise of McCarthy’s training career.
McCarthy grew up three blocks from Santa Anita Park and not surprisingly found his way to racing even though his family didn’t have any involvement in the game. He worked a variety of jobs on the backstretches of California’s tracks starting out, including hands-on with horses for trainers John O’Hara, Doug Peterson and Ben Cecil. McCarthy started a more than decade-long association with Todd Pletcher in 2002, first as a foreman and eventually as one of his most trusted assistants handling strings in Kentucky, New York and California.
The stop in California came during Santa Anita’s winter-spring meet of 2006-07, a period when Pletcher served a 45-day suspension and McCarthy took over the West Coast operation. McCarthy, 36 at the time and known from the frontside to the backside as “Whitey,” proved a more than capable stand-in. He won six of 19 at the meet – 11 starts in stakes competition. The winners included Rags To Riches, who went on to win the Kentucky Oaks and Belmont Stakes in Pletcher’s name but broke her maiden and took the Grade 1 Las Virgenes in McCarthy’s.
Perhaps more importantly the graduate of nearby Arcadia High School reconnected with a former elementary school classmate during that winter.
“We went to first grade together, I have the class picture to prove it,” Erin McCarthy said. “Hugo Reid Elementary School in Arcadia. He grew up about three blocks west of the racetrack, Santa Anita, and I grew up three blocks north of the racetrack.
“We went our separate ways for 30 years and reconnected when he was working for Todd and wintering in California. It was 2007, the year of Rags To Riches. He was in Kentucky and I was in L.A. We dated long-distance and were married long-distance. I had a great job in L.A., he had a great job with Todd obviously. It wasn’t until our daughter (Stella) she turned 3 that he decided to come home.”
McCarthy left Pletcher’s operation in late 2013, the same year he played a key role in the development of Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice, and set up shop back home.
“He called and said, ‘we’ve got to do something, you’re either moving here or I’m moving home.’ He was ready,” Erin McCarthy said. “He learned everything he could from Todd. Todd was amazing to him, he won big races, was around amazing horses as you well know. There was nothing more. He could stay doing it and financially it was very stable but he was ready. He was ready to do this on his own. Our families are still in Arcadia and to have her home with grandparents is great. That’s all Stella wants, her dad.”
McCarthy started with one horse for Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners before Aron Wellman sent him another that proved to be his first “starter” in early 2014.
Norastone finished 13th in the California Cup Oaks after being privately purchased by Eclipse and it would be more than seven months before McCarthy won a race on his own with Dessert Willow for John Borba and Jodie Mudd at Del Mar. McCarthy’s association with the Warrens, who campaigned 2005 Horse of the Year Saint Liam, started that same year.
McCarthy’s appreciation for the Warrens flowed like rainwater in Gulfstream’s downspouts and tears from the eyes from many in attendance in the makeshift press conference in an abandoned restaurant not from the track’s south gate Saturday night.
“I’d also like to thank the family sitting to my right, the Warrens,” McCarthy said before a pause that led one of the interviewers to interrupt briefly.
“Wait, I’m not done,” McCarthy said to laughs. “They did a lot for me personally. They did a lot for my family. To come here for a day like today, I thought the Breeders’ Cup was as I said, almost like out of body, today was … I’m very grateful. … Now I’m done.”
McCarthy’s now 8-year-old daughter Stella sat on his lap during the question-and-answer session, hugging her father, kissing him on the cheek and straightening his tie at one point. She really came to his aid when the subject came to what City Of Light meant to McCarthy’s career.
“Still kind of sinking in,” McCarthy said. “We’ve been in business five years, started with one horse. … To have a horse like this come into your life … I’m honestly, I can’t describe the emotion that goes along with something like this.
“Winning the Breeders’ Cup was incredibly special, to be able to go ahead and follow it up with something like this. I don’t know if it will ever happen again. If it doesn’t I’m probably OK with it. But at least it happened. Like the Vin Scully line, ‘don’t be sad that it’s over, be glad that it happened,’ something like that. I’m very glad that it happened. Once-in-a-lifetime type of horse. Javier said it earlier, when you saw him running through the lane, I don’t think there was a horse that could beat him today. I’ve said that all along, emphatically, thought he was … a gift. To everybody. Everybody that touched him, walked him, everybody that feeds him, everybody that bathes him. … I wish I had a better way with words but I’m pretty speechless right now.”
Path To Victory
Bettors opted for Accelerate as the slight 3-2 favorite by post time of 5:42 p.m., the Breeders’ Cup Classic and newly crowned champion older male going off just below City Of Light at 9-5 and the only other single-digit choices, Audible and Gunnevera, co-third choices at 9-1.
City Of Light and Castellano broke well from post 3 in the field of 12 and Patternrecognition, the Grade 1 Cigar Mile winner looking to give Chad Brown and owners Seth Klarman and Bill Lawrence a Pegasus double after Bricks And Mortar won the Turf, gunned to the front from his extreme outside draw. Patternrecognition and Jose Ortiz led through the opening splits of :23.23 and :46.84 with City Of Light cruising on their outside
City Of Light pulled Castellano to the front just outside the half-mile pole while Patternrecognition quickly relinquished the lead and dropped back through the field. Castellano’s hands barely moved as they opened up, the chasers doing far more work than needed on this day and City Of Light cruised by 6 furlongs in 1:10.80.
Joel Rosario and Accelerate made a brief run up the inside around the far turn but could never get close and turning for home it was over. Castellano shook the reins several times, flashed his whip and never asked a serious question of City Of Light, who won by the biggest margin of his career since a 7 1/2-length maiden score in September 2017 at Del Mar.
“You don’t see too many horses that got speed, balance, dimensions,” Castellano said. “He did everything today. I enjoyed the ride to be honest with you. I give all the credit to Michael McCarthy for putting everything together for this race.”
William Warren, who thanked everyone from his parents to the U.S. Navy to Notre Dame after the race, went even further in his praise for McCarthy. Warren said a big reason he and his wife gave horses, including the $710,000 Keeneland September yearling City Of Light, to McCarthy was because of his longtime apprenticeship under Pletcher.
“He spent a lot of time with Todd and learned a lot,” Warren said. “He’s very much a detail man. He’s devoted to each of his horses. That means a lot to me. He’s not trying to get 150 or 200 horses. He wants to get horses he feels he can make champions and that’s what attracted me to him. I think he’s a man of great character. He makes good decisions, which I need because sometimes I have some pretty wild ideas.”
City Of Light, who will stand alongside Accelerate at Lane’s End when the breeding season opens next month, retires with a record of six wins, four seconds and a third from 11 starts and a bankroll of $5,662,600 thanks to the $4 million earned from the Pegasus.
Notes: Castellano won two stakes on the day, City Of Light and Stonestreet Stable’s Dream Pauline in the Grade 3 Fasig-Tipton Hurricane Bertie. The 4-year-old daughter of Tapit, winner of the Grade 3 Sugar Swirl Dec. 15 at Gulfstream, came up the inside in the stretch to win by 3 ½ lengths from 44-1 longshot Pacific Gale with Stormy Embrace third and champion female sprinter and Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint winner Shamrock Rose fourth in the field of eight. ... Aztec Sense stretched his win streak to nine and gave trainer Jorge Navarro his 1,000th win in the Grade 3 Fred W. Hooper at 1 mile on the main track. The 6-year-old Street Sense gelding, last seen winning the Claiming Crown Jewel Dec. 1 at Gulfstream, won by 1 3/4 over late-running Breaking Lucky. Aztec Sense was vanned off after the race but X rays were clean, Navarro said Sunday morning. ... Michael Hui's Zulu Alpha, who gave trainer John Ortiz his first graded stakes victory in last fall's Grade 3 Sycamore at Keeneland, led a 1-2 sweep for new trainer Mike Maker in the Grade 3 W. L. McKnight. Maker, who trains many of Hui's top horses, also sent out runner-up Soglio for owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey.
Watch the Pegasus, courtesy of NBC Sports:
Trainer Michael McCarthy the morning after, courtesy of Gulfstream Park: