01/15/2017 11:21AM

Watchmaker: Pegasus shows lack of depth in many stakes divisions


Full disclosure: I was a Pegasus World Cup skeptic when the concept was announced last May. Although I knew some big-time racing connections would certainly pony up the $1 million buy-in, I doubted there were as many as 12 horses anywhere in the world who were worthy of such a commitment. I also wondered who might be willing to accept this level of risk in a 1 1/8-mile race such as this at Gulfstream Park, where the configuration of such a race means a very short run to the first turn, spelling almost automatic doom for any horse breaking from at least posts 10, 11, and 12.

Well, even if the horses in total aren’t really there, the starting spots for the Pegasus sold in a blink of an eye, and this thing is going to happen, one week from Saturday.

When I say the horses in total aren’t really there, I mean nothing has happened over the past several months to alter the storyline that this inaugural Pegasus is strictly a two-horse affair.

Of course, that’s not a bad thing if you have the right two horses, and the Pegasus certainly has them in Arrogate and California Chrome – the first two finishers in the Breeders’ Cup Classic last November, certain divisional Eclipse Award winners, and the principal protagonists in the 2016 Horse of the Year award.

Moreover, we have these added layers: This will be the final start for California Chrome, Horse of the Year in 2014, when he won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. And while California Chrome was caught late by Arrogate in the Classic after having everything his way on the lead, poor weather in California forced Arrogate to miss his Pegasus prep. How much of an impact will that have in what will be their second and final meeting? This suspense is good.

The unwanted aspect of the Pegasus - that it looks on paper like a two-horse race - is that it shines a harsh light on the painful lack of depth in many of our stakes divisions, including the handicap division. Can any of the others known to have intentions of starting in the Pegasus actually compete with Arrogate and California Chrome? Do some of these other entrants even belong in the same starting gate? Lets take a quick look.

- Eragon is certainly the wild card here. He has won three Group 1 races in his native Argentina, but it’s anyone’s guess as to how he’ll class up in his U.S. debut. He could be beaten a long way, and I don’t think it would surprise anyone.

- Keen Ice, of course, capitalized on a surprise pace battle when he upset Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers, but hasn’t won in eight starts since, one of which was his distant third behind Arrogate and California Chrome in the BC Classic at 32-1. Keen Ice is, in fact, still eligible to a second-level allowance race.

- Shaman Ghost and Breaking Lucky finished first and fourth in the Grade 1 Woodward last summer, but that was the race in which Frosted suffered a terribly overconfident ride, clouding the outcome. Shaman Ghost was a soundly beaten third in the Clark in his one start since. Breaking Lucky, who was 48-1 in the Woodward, was 46-1 when second in the Clark.

- Neolithic earned triple-digit Beyer Figures finishing second in the Grade 3 Discovery two starts back in his stakes debut and winning an allowance race most recently. But that allowance win came at the first-level allowance condition.

- Ralis is yet another eligible to a second-level allowance race. He hasn’t won since the Hopeful in September 2015, 12 starts ago.

- Noble Bird surfaced Sunday morning as a Pegasus hopeful, though he doesn’t have a starting slot and must make a deal with someone who does own one to run. Noble Bird won the Grade 1 Stephen Foster in 2015, but none of his three stakes wins last year was at a higher level than Grade 2.

- And then there’s War Story, winner of the listed Queens County most recently. War Story was also in the BC Classic field and, though he didn’t break well, he finished eighth, beaten more than 25 lengths at 104-1.

Look, I want the Pegasus World Cup to be successful because even though $12 million races are ostentatious, this race might prove in time to be good for the game, and anything good for the game is good for all of us who participate in it in our own way. In that spirit, here are three suggestions that I think will improve future editions of this event:

** The distance must be increased to 1 1/4 miles. It is still the classic distance in U.S. thoroughbred racing, and if next year’s Pegasus doesn’t move to Santa Anita and remains at Gulfstream, a distance increase will negate the post-position issue.

** The murkiness surrounding deals for ownership slots must be addressed. A clearinghouse, a website, should be created, keeping real-time track of the ownership of Pegasus starting slots, deals or lease arrangements made by the owners of those slots and, most importantly, the horses involved. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but it is critical to the success of the Pegasus that the racing public knows without any ambiguity which specific horses have intentions of competing in the race, and how they got there.

** The Pegasus and its undercard will be drawn on Monday, Jan. 23, two days before a Saturday card at Gulfstream is usually drawn. I don’t think that alone is quite enough, though. The Pegasus should borrow – okay, steal – a page from the Breeders’ Cup and institute a pre-entry stage, say, 12 days or so out, and then have a final-draw stage. A final draw on Monday such as where it is now is perfect. But a publicized pre-entry stage will only stimulate public interest in the Pegasus.