Nicholas Godfrey: It’s the Pegasus World Cup, but not as we know it

Horse Racing Planet Nicholas Godfrey

A shrinking prize fund and beefed-up welfare at Gulfstream Park – is it a new era, or the death knell for the one-time world’s richest race? By Nicholas Godfrey

AT the risk of demeaning a famous quotation coined in a rather more significant historical context, this may not be the end. It may not even be the beginning of the end. What it is, at the very least, is the end of the beginning.

I am talking about the hugely significant changes to the Pegasus World Cup, due to be staged for the fourth time at Gulfstream Park on January 25 – with massively reduced prize-money and its controversial entry structure consigned to the garbage. 

To recap, the Stronach Group issued a press release trumpeting “a new era in the sport of thoroughbred racing in North America” by announcing that raceday medication will be prohibited for both the Pegasus World Cup and its sister race on turf. Lasix-free, in other words. 

Beefed-up veterinary protocols and inspections will be enacted, and two per cent of the purse structure will be awarded to racehorse aftercare programmes – both push-button topics in the current equine welfare-driven climate of US racing.

Yet as welcome as such initiatives may appear, there was another even more explosive bombshell slightly hidden away further down the press release.

Far from being the richest race in the world, the Pegasus World Cup is nowhere near the richest race in North America

A massive $12 million has been slashed from the Pegasus prize fund, and the novel race conditions that entailed owners stumping up $1m apiece to run in the inaugural event in 2017 has been totally abandoned.

Next month’s Pegasus races will be free entry, by-invitation-only. From one extreme to the other, it might be suggested. The main event will be worth ‘only’ $3m, down from $9m only 12 months ago, while the Pegasus Turf is now just a run-of-the-mill US grass race with a $1m purse (down from $7m).

Let’s be clear: however they spin it, this is quite a cut for an event launched with plenty of fanfare as the world’s richest race at $12m when Arrogate won in 2017, or at $16m Gun Runner when scored 12 months later. 

Far from being the richest race in the world, the Pegasus World Cup is nowhere near the richest race in North America, a title that is back where it should be with the Breeders’ Cup Classic at $6m.

Arrogate (left) won the inaugural Pegasus. Photo by Gulfstream Park/Adam Mooshian

All of which feels like a tacit admission of failure, and frankly it is hard to argue otherwise given criticisms over the exorbitant entry structure that has always looked a flawed concept.

It is all very well asking rich owners to stump up $1m to run their horses to chase an inflated purse, but a number of them got rinsed in the initial running, despite promises of a slice of non-existent media-rights revenue.

Sure, if you owned one of the favourites, it was a gamble worth taking; not so much if your horse was a longshot. Even rich people don’t like throwing money down the drain. They could have tried running it as a US-style limited handicap, like the Donn, the race it replaced; that might have given everyone more of a shake without levelling the playing field entirely.

Ironically, the Pegasus pay-to-play structure was copied with rather greater success in Australia with the Everest, which has produced a competitive field annually.

On the other hand, such a purely negative reflection on the first three runnings of the race is unfair because in one significant respect, the Pegasus has succeeded. Horses like California Chrome, Gun Runner and City Of Light stayed in training into the new year for one last hurrah; Omaha Beach is doing the same in 2020. In effect, the US season has been extended by another month. This is a wholly positive development.

The advent of the new Saudi Cup as the world’s richest race at $20m to be run four weeks after the Pegasus cannot have been welcomed in Florida, though the concept of a ‘winter triple crown’ also featuring the Dubai World Cup had been mooted as the shape of the global racing calendar continues to evolve at a pace.

What is more, it can be argued that the Stronach Group are making a virtue out of necessity by taking the lead on matters such as Lasix and aftercare. “That’s the direction the industry is heading,” suggested multiple champion trainer Todd Pletcher, speaking to the Daily Racing Form. “In that regard, it will be interesting to see how it plays out, how it will affect entries, since it’s something we’re going to be seeing more and more of.”

Elsewhere, though, the news has been met with less than enthusiasm. Not for some people, it seems, high fives at the absence of raceday medication or the provision for thoroughbred aftercare, nor even the free entry fees. 

Rather, it is all about the money, which is why likely favourite Maximum Security has been rerouted to the Middle East. Prior to news of the total $12m cut in the overall Pegasus prize fund, owner Gary West had said he had little interest in shipping Maximum Security overseas to places like Saudi Arabia and Dubai. Suddenly, however, it appears the concept of travel has its virtues. About 20 million of them as far as the new Saudi Cup is concerned.

West is by no means the only one for whom the prize reduction has put a spanner in the Pegasus works. Champion trainer Chad Brown had nothing for the dirt race anyway, but even he is having a rethink about the turf contest, which he was targeting with Instilled Regard, Sacred Life and Without Parole.

Clearly a million bucks just ain’t what is used to be, and neither is the Pegasus. Looked at in a positive manner, the much vaunted race may be more sustainable within its new format, leading the way for drug-free racing in North America.

But is what we’ve just heard is the ringing in of a new era or the sounding of a death knell? Time will tell.

How the Pegasus has developed
2017: Arrogate
Total prize-money: $12m
First prize: $7m
Entry fee: $1m
2018: Gun Runner
Total prize-money: $16m
First prize: $7m
Entry fee: $1m 
2019: City Of Light
Total prize-money: $9m (plus new $7m Turf)
First prize: $4m ($2.65m for turf)
Entry fee: $500,000
Total prize-money: $3m (plus $1m Turf)
First prize: $1.8m
Entry fee: nil