March 18, 2019

Pegasus World Cup, third edition: Another Breeders’ Cup redux or pointer toward the future?

Gun Runner concluded his racing career with a sensational victory in the Pegasus World Cup (G1) (c) Viola Jasko/Adam Coglianese Photography

In its first two runnings, the Pegasus World Cup Invitational (G1) has served as a Breeders’ Cup repeat, more of a crowning flourish on the preceding season than a launching pad to the next. The trend looks set to continue Saturday with Breeders’ Cup stars Accelerate and City of Light making their last hurrah before retirement. An upset, however, would be a more compelling plot twist for the season going forward.

The last-out Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) winner has won both editions of the Pegasus so far – Arrogate (2017) at 4-5 and Gun Runner (2018) as the even-money favorite. Each featured a renewal of Classic rivalry, with the victims unable to change the result. Arrogate once more beat the retiring (and out-of-sorts) California Chrome, and Gun Runner defeated West Coast et al.

The 2017 Pegasus did produce a few major winners during the year. Arrogate went on to a dramatic victory in the Dubai World Cup (G1), runner-up Shaman Ghost took the Santa Anita H. (G1), fourth Keen Ice captured the Suburban (G2), even the fifth War Story garnered the Brooklyn (G2).

Yet Arrogate’s total loss of form in the second half left his Pegasus as a distant memory, a relic of his all-too-brief greatness. And none of the other Pegasus participants contended for divisional leadership.

That inaugural Pegasus would have had a more enduring impact if Gun Runner, the eventual Horse of the Year, had been able to compete. He missed out through no fault of his own, thanks to an EHV-1 outbreak at Fair Grounds.

After reeling off four straight Grade 1s culminating in the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Classic, Gun Runner signed off in a blaze of glory in the 2018 Pegasus and retired to stud. Runner-up West Coast, subsequently second in the Dubai World Cup, was absent during the heart of the season and raced only twice more before bowing out. Third-placer Gunnevera has continued to be a high-profile placegetter, an admirable money-spinner for Antonio Sano if not a win machine. Fifth Seeking the Soul returned from injury to compile a productive second half, and like Gunnevera, tries the Pegasus again on Saturday.

Thus the second Pegasus did not set the stage, in any meaningful way, for the remainder of the year. Like the first running, it validated the Breeders’ Cup Classic result but itself was superseded as the new year unfolded.

As a January event, it’s logical that the Pegasus bears the imprint of the prior year. But just as the Roman god of the doorway, Janus, looked both backward and forward, the Pegasus ideally would offer a similar balance between past and future.

Saturday’s third running already offers a new wrinkle in pitting two Breeders’ Cup winners against each other. Accelerate hopes to prolong the perfect record of Classic heroes, while City of Light is the first Dirt Mile (G1) winner to try it. As my colleague Vance Hanson has pointed out, the 1 1/8-mile scenario around Gulfstream Park could tilt the scales toward City of Light.

Still, since the rivals are retiring together to Lane’s End, even if City of Light breaks the Classic winner’s grip on the Pegasus, it wouldn’t make a material difference to the larger trend. The result would remain a retrospective on the Breeders’ Cup, just a different race during the two-day championships.

In that respect, the Pegasus is making me think of the old expression about the 2000 Guineas (G1) being the “last two-year-old race” – the top juvenile of the preceding year retaining an edge over his contemporaries in the first British classic of the season. Unless the 2019 Pegasus winner has greater currency throughout the year, the $9 million affair will continue to look like the “last race of 2018.”