Pegasus takes flight

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You ready for Pegasus World Cup I? The Roman numeral is mine, but if ever a horse race deserved the Super Bowl designation it’s one named after a statue of a mythical winged horse stomping on a fire-breathing dragon. But there’s more to the Pegasus, which is harder to type than I thought, than a gimmick.

The Stronach Group’s creation is the world’s richest Thoroughbred race at $12 million (a cool $7 million to the winner and at least $250,000 to every finisher) via an entry scenario where each owner paid $1 million for a slot and also shares in other revenue sources. Crazy, right? That’s what everybody said this spring but the starting gate sold out quickly and – better yet – Saturday’s race attracted 2016 champions California Chrome and Arrogate in a rematch of last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.

And that’s pretty much all you need to know, but think about it . . . Two-time Horse of the Year California Chrome runs once more before he goes off to stud at age 6. Who was the last Kentucky Derby winner to race at 6? I have no idea. And champion 3-year-old of 2016 Arrogate gets another chance to prove his burgeoning talent against a heavy-duty rival. They finished a half-length apart (Arrogate over California Chrome) 12 weeks ago in the Classic – going a furlong shorter in one of the best races of the year.

That’s enough for me.

Bravo, Gulfstream Park, the Stronach Group, owners for supporting the concept, trainers for figuring out how to get the horses there and so on. The big names will, rightfully, get the attention and they stand out. But there are 10 others in the race. Four are millionaires. One finished third in that Breeders’ Cup Classic. The race is on NBC, and part of a big-time full card with big fields and the game’s key players.

Back in May at Pimlico, shortly after a press conference announcing details of the event, I talked with Tom Ludt about how Frank Stronach came up with the idea.

“To be blunt, he brought the idea up a couple years ago, but the Stronach Group has been on so many different avenues it kind of got put on the back burner,” Ludt said. “Then he called me and brought it back up. It’s been out there longer than you think, it just got pushed up to the front burner finally.”

Stronach called in Starlight Racing’s Jack Wolf to help sell the idea, momentum built and the concept took flight thanks to a timely conversation at Gulfstream Park.

“We were waiting at the valet stand,” said Wolf’s wife Laurie at the Pimlico event. “Jack and Frank started chatting and Jack said he loved the idea and then it became, ‘Well, how serious are you?’ ”

Everyone on the Pegasus side was surprised at how quickly the 12 slots sold out. The dozen chess pieces have moved around the board a bit since then, with Coolmore selling its slot to Juddmonte Farm so Arrogate could run and several partnerships forming around other horses, but the race got its full field.

 “I don’t read the chatter, but I hear there’s a lot of people saying it’ll never happen and this and that,” said Ludt in May. “That’s one of the problems with our sport and that’s one of the things I praise Frank for. You have to take risks. Sometimes it’s going to work and sometimes it’s not.”

The Pegasus worked, in that it’s happening. The rest will have to come. Will the crowd live up to the field? Will the track/horse owner revenue partnership pan out?

Surely, Saturday will have some growing pains. General admission tickets are $100 each and were still on sale at the track website (reserved seats were $650 on, though some other higher-end tickets were sold out. Must-attend events aren’t created in one year, even when the horses cooperate. And some people scoffed at the Breeders’ Cup concept. In May, Ludt and Wolf talked about making the Pegasus a full weekend of horse-oriented events that would appeal to industry insiders and newcomers alike.

I’m not sure they got there, but the race works and that’s the first step.

“You want fans to follow the horses, and the more things we can create to do that the better we’ll all be,” said Ludt.

More please.