Southern California racing has been in a bit of a slump lately, winning only one Eclipse Award on Thursday night, but all that was forgotten Saturday when Mucho Gusto won going away in the $3-million Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream Park.
The Bob Baffert-trained colt ran a near-perfect race under Irad Ortiz Jr., who was riding him for the first time. The 1 1/8-mile race is a difficult one to win from the outside because of the short run to the first turn. But Ortiz hustled Mucho Gusto out of the eighth gate. From there he settled on the rail in striking distance and by the top of the stretch had a 2 1/2-length lead and won by 4 ½ lengths.
“Irad Ortiz did a pretty masterful job,” Baffert said by phone from Santa Anita. “He had me a little bit worried the way he was down inside like that, but he knew what he was doing. When he tilted out at the quarter-pole, all I could say was ‘Damn, I wish I would have flown down there.’ But it was pretty exciting.”
The race took on a very different complexion when the two favorites, Omaha Beach and Spun To Run scratched out of the race earlier in the week.
Mucho Gusto had a good year but never the breakout win. He was on the Kentucky Derby trail but a disappointing third in the Sunland Derby dropped him to the sidelines. He came back and won two Grade 3s at Santa Anita before finishing second in the Haskell Invitational and third in the Travers Stakes. He was seemingly all set for a big win in the Oklahoma Derby, but he finished fourth with a troubled trip.
Saturday’s win was his sixth in 11 races. Mucho Gusto paid $8.80, $5.00 and $3.80. Longshots Mr. Freeze and War Story were second and third. Higher Power, trained by John Sadler and ridden by Flavien Prat, finished last in the 10-horse race.
Baffert is hoping that Mucho Gusto will now get an invitation to the $20-million Saudi Cup on Feb. 29.
“He didn’t get an invite to the Saudi Cup so I thought maybe if he runs well enough, he’ll get an invitation,” Baffert said.
In the day’s other big race, Zulu Alpha won the $1-million Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational. He paid $25.60, $11.40 and $7.60. Magic Wand was second and Instilled Regard was third. Mo Forza, trained by Peter Miller and ridden by Joel Rosario, finished ninth in the 12-horse field.
A 7-year-old gelding, Zulu Alpha was content to hang near the back in the 1 3/16-mile race. He got interested on the far turn, was in the top three at the top of the stretch and won by two lengths.
“[He’s] just a great horse,” trainer Mike Maker said. “I thought he got unlucky in the Breeders’ Cup [where he finished fourth] or he might have gotten a bigger slice there. He got some time off after that and he really thrived coming in.
“I was just hoping that [jockey Tyler Gaffalione] would get out. But he saved all the ground and he got lucky.”