The circumstances are rather different, though. Aside from the fact that Gun Runner was gunning for a far higher purse in 2018, he entered on the heels of a 2017 Horse of the Year campaign culminating in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1).
Cyberknife is a year younger, as a four-year-old, coming off a narrow loss in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1). On the plus side, that’s been the key race for the Pegasus in the ensuing years. Three of the past four Pegasus winners were last seen capturing the Dirt Mile. On the other hand, Cyberknife encounters a couple of rivals in the form of their life, Proxy and Defunded. Adding to the depth of the 12-strong field are $2.3 million-earner Art Collector; the Saffie Joseph Jr. trio of White Abarrio, Skippylongstocking, and O’Connor; and last year’s Pegasus third, Stilleto Boy.
Trained by Brad Cox, whose Knicks Go turned the 2020 Dirt Mile/2021 Pegasus double, Cyberknife returns to arguably his optimal 1 1/8-mile trip. The chestnut scored his marquee wins in last year’s Arkansas Derby (G1) and Haskell (G1), edging Taiba in the latter, and his only loss at this distance was a belated third to Taiba in the Pennsylvania Derby (G1). Also a game second behind Epicenter in the 1 1/4-mile Travers (G1), Cyberknife was just outdueled by Cody’s Wish in the Nov. 5 Dirt Mile.
With Epicenter retired, and Taiba and Cody’s Wish awaiting other targets, Cyberknife hopes to grab the spotlight before retiring to stud at Spendthrift Farm. Regular rider Florent Geroux, who also partnered Gun Runner, will guide the 5-2 morning-line favorite from post 10.
Proxy was a veteran of the productive 2021 Road to the Kentucky Derby at Fair Grounds, where he placed to both Mandaloun and Midnight Bourbon before finishing fourth to Hot Rod Charlie in the Louisiana Derby (G2). Godolphin’s homebred son of Tapit resumed from a long layoff and ultimately rewarded his connections’ patience at four. Although settling for minors in graded events in the first half of 2022, including placing to Olympiad in the New Orleans Classic (G2) and Stephen Foster (G2), Proxy put it all together in the Nov. 25 Clark (G1) at Churchill Downs. The Mike Stidham trainee looked much sharper in his stalk-and-pounce display that bodes well for the Pegasus. Drawn on the rail, as in the Clark, the 9-2 chance keeps Joel Rosario in the saddle.
Defunded likewise showed promise before finally breaking through with back-to-back graded wins last fall. From the barn of Bob Baffert, a two-time Pegasus winner courtesy of Arrogate (2017) and Mucho Gusto (2020), Defunded wired the Oct. 1 Awesome Again (G1) over globetrotting stablemate Country Grammer. The Dialed In gelding passed on the Breeders’ Cup, instead preferring to dominate the Nov. 22 Native Diver (G3) at Del Mar. The 6-1 shot arrives fresh as a pace presence.
The Bill Mott-trained Art Collector is another likely to flash speed off the bench. A subpar fifth when last seen in the Lukas Classic (G2) Oct. 1, the son of Bernardini was previously in top form with repeat wins in both the Alydar S. at Saratoga and the Charles Town Classic (G2). Art Collector’s back class stretches much further, as the hero of the 2020 Blue Grass (G2) and 2021 Woodward (G1). The six-year-old remains a danger at his best.
White Abarrio is unbeaten at Gulfstream, his 4-for-4 mark including last year’s Holy Bull (G3) and the Florida Derby (G1) at this trip. Losing his way following a 16th in the Kentucky Derby (G1), the gray took longer to regain his old spark than fellow Derby also-ran Cyberknife did. But White Abarrio turned the corner with a close third in the Dec. 3 Cigar Mile (G1), and a return to his home track could put him back in the winner’s circle.
Cigar Mile near-misser Get Her Number faces a distance question on the stretch-out. The Peter Miller charge hasn’t prospered over a route since upsetting the 2020 American Pharoah (G1) as a juvenile. Reverting to one turn last campaign, Get Her Number thrived with three allowance wins (notably mugging ring-rusty stablemate Ginobili at Del Mar) as well as placings in the Triple Bend (G2) and Bing Crosby (G1).
Fellow California shipper Stilleto Boy was most recently runner-up behind the imperious Country Grammer in the Dec. 26 San Antonio (G2). The Ed Moger Jr. trainee has become quite a money-spinner, if more by virtue of placings than wins. That tendency makes Stilleto Boy interesting from an exotics perspective, but he’s unlikely to duplicate his front-running heroics from last spring’s Californian (G2).
Three Pegasus entrants prepped locally in the Dec. 31 Harlan’s Holiday (G3) – the victorious Skippylongstocking, third Simplification, and O’Connor, a disappointing fourth as the 6-5 favorite.
Skippylongstocking, who earned his first stakes tally in the West Virginia Derby (G3), had been third in last year’s Belmont (G1) and Wood Memorial (G2). Fellow Triple Crown trail veteran Simplification has gone winless since the 2022 Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream, but the Antonio Sano colt tends to factor more often than not. A repeat of his fourths from the Kentucky Derby and Pennsylvania Derby would put Simplification in the mix underneath.
Chilean Group 1 hero O’Connor turned in a sensational U.S. debut at Gulfstream, romping by six in an Oct. 16 allowance. He failed to build on that effort when a flat fourth in the Harlan’s Holiday, but Joseph later diagnosed a problem with O’Connor’s glue-on shoes separating. If his footwear is sorted, we could see him deliver a better performance.
Last Samurai, winner of the 2022 Oaklawn H. (G2), was most recently a neck second in the Tinsel S. back in Hot Springs. But his fifth behind Art Collector at Charles Town and his fourth to Proxy in the Clark indicate that he needs to conjure up more to turn the tables here. Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas has a knack for doing just that, and he gets Frankie Dettori.
With the defection of Super Corinto, Greenwood Cup (G3) victor Ridin with Biden secured the last spot in the main body of the field. The Butch Reid trainee captured minor stakes at Parx in his last pair.
The two also-eligibles, from the reserve list of invitations, are Hoist the Gold and Grade 2-placed Endorsed. Hoist the Gold, from the barn of Dallas Stewart, was third to Taiba in the Malibu (G1) in his latest. Endorsed, fourth in last year’s Pegasus, landed a recent allowance over the track for Mike Maker.