California Chrome-Arrogate showdown makes Pegasus racing’s ‘Super Bowl’
Horse of the Year California Chrome will participate in his last race on Saturday during the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park.
There is no overstating the magnitude of Saturday’s inaugural Pegasus World Cup. The $12-million prize purse is thoroughbred racing’s richest ever. The winner will receive $7 million, also an all-time high.
Big purses often fail to attract fields worthy of the reward. The Pegasus has drawn North American Horse of the Year California Chrome and Arrogate, named this past week by a European panel as Horse of the World. California Chrome will be the first reigning Horse of the Year to race at Gulfstream since Invasor won the 2007 Donn Handicap.
“What else would we be doing right now? Getting ready for the Super Bowl?” Arrogate trainer Bob Baffert said. “This is our Super Bowl.”
The race and surrounding activities will be televised on NBC from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Pacific time (post time is 2:45), and it will be seen in 122 countries.
A live crowd of about 17,000 is anticipated, Gulfstream Park President Tim Ritvo said. That is smaller than the annual Florida Derby at Gulfstream, kept down by the $100 general admission, the steepest in racing. The track normally has no admission charge.
The buildup mostly centers on the rematch between California Chrome and Arrogate, who met in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 5. Chrome led most of the way until Arrogate surged past him in deep stretch to win by a half-length.
It was Chrome’s only defeat in seven races in 2016. Arrogate ran third in a sprint race in his debut last April then won five in a row. In the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, he ran the fastest mile and a quarter in the 140-year history of the storied race track.
The Classic, like the Travers, was run at 10 furlongs. California Chrome still had the lead after a mile and an eighth, the distance of the Pegasus.
“I’m anxious to have a rematch,” said Chrome’s trainer Art Sherman. He thinks jockey Victor Espinoza’s riding tactics might have cost his horse the first race. Instead of opening what might have been an insurmountable lead, Espinoza tried to save something for Arrogate’s challenge.
This time will be different, Sherman said. “When he’s turning for home and in a position to open up, you’re going to see a different horse.”
Arrogate jockey Mike Smith also learned something from that race and is unlikely to allow California Chrome to get away from him.
“I think Arrogate is the only horse in the world who might have caught [California Chrome],” he said. “It took an unbelievable effort. It’s going to take another one here on Saturday.”
The luck of the draw could change the shape of the race. Arrogate drew the ground-saving No. 1 post, the same position as he had in the Travers, a race he led all the way. California Chrome is stuck outside in No. 12. He might have to expend energy better saved for later to avoid being pushed wide in the first turn.
Sherman is unfazed, saying, “He’s a push button horse. He’s got enough speed to put him any place you want to.”
Espinoza shares that attitude.
“I can’t be negative because he has the 12,’ he said. “It’s not going to affect me.”
There also are drawbacks to No. 1, Baffert said. A tardy getaway could find Arrogate stuck on the inside behind horses, with no way to improve his position.
“The break is going to be crucial,” Baffert said. “He has to break. If he doesn’t break, it’s going to be tough.”
This will be the final time California Chrome and Arrogate meet. If not for the Pegasus, Chrome would be in Kentucky to begin his stud career, Sherman said. The 2014 Kentucky Derby winner will head for the Blue Grass right after the Pegasus.
Baffert said if the Pegasus had been around last year, Triple Crown winner American Pharoah might have made a stop at Gulfstream en route to the breeding shed to compete for the lucrative payoff.
Ten others have been entered Saturday. All are extreme longshots.
Keen Ice, who upset American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers, is the third choice at 12-1. He finished more than 10 lengths in arrears of Arrogate and California Chrome at the Breeders’ Cup.
Five horses have morning-line odds of 50-1, a number rarely seen in other races. Some are in the race only because the Pegasus shareholders, who anted up $1 million apiece for a slot in the starting gate, need a horse to run around the track to salvage the $250,000 promised to all starters.
Smith, a Hall of Fame jockey who has won just about every important race in America, said it’s tough not to get swept up in the excitement of an event this big.
“I live for this day,” he said. “This is one of those days that make you go down in history.”
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