The inaugural $12 million Pegasus World Cup is slated to be held at Gulfstream Park January 28th. The top two finishers from the Breeders’ Cup Classic — Arrogate and California Chrome — are expected to clash again. Here is a preview of this new race concept courtesy of America’s Best Racing & Bloodhorse.com. This stakes is the highlight of the winter race calendar, and Virginia residents can bet the action via TVG.com, XPressBet.com, TwinSpires.com and at the Richmond Off Track Betting center at Breakers Sports Grille. A second OTB, at 110 N. 18th Street in Shockoe Bottom, is expected to be open by then as well.
The inaugural Pegasus World Cup (gr. I) Jan. 28 at Gulfstream Park is already shaping up to be one of the weirdest events in the history of horse racing. The 12 spots in the race, priced at $1 million each, sold out in four days back in May. Most of the spots sold to people who did not have a horse in training that could potentially run in the race. One of the spots sold to a mysterious pizza franchise owner who has never owned a racehorse in his life. Now, less than two months to go before the race, it is as unclear who the 12 horses will be as it was on the day in May that the spots were sold.
One horse that is certain to start is California Chrome , whose owners purchased a spot in the race in May and who has looked impressive throughout 2016. Another horse that seems very likely to start, but whose owners don’t own a spot and have yet to commit to the race, is the Travers Stakes (gr. I) and Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) winner Arrogate. If Juddmonte Farms, which owns Arrogate, decides they want him to race in the richest race in history, they would probably get a great deal after the owners of the other open spots bid against each other for him.
As for the rest of the ten spots, it is anyone’s guess. After winning the Clark Handicap (gr. I) last week at Churchill Downs, Gun Runner was floated as a possible contender. Ron Winchell, the horse’s co-owner, isn’t so sure.
“With Arrogate and Chrome possibly going, it makes for a pretty tough race,” he told the Thoroughbred Daily News. “You get $1 million for finishing third. To enter into a deal with someone holding a slot, you’ll be doing a deal with someone who has spent $1 million and they obviously want their $1 million back first. If I were that person that would be priority No. 1. What does that mean for somebody like me? You’re running for nothing unless you get first or second. I don’t really like those odds.”
So what, then, are the owners of the other 10 spots to do? And why did they, in the absence of any horses they felt were contenders, spend seven figures on these spots to begin with? Well, for starters, there’s more at stake than the purse money. It’s true that the Pegasus World Cup has the richest purse in history. Because the purse money is coming entirely from the owners of the spots (as opposed to the 1-to-2 percent of the purse that is typically posted by the owners), the winner’s share is going to be $7 million. But each owner of a spot will also have an equal share in the wagering, sponsoring, and media rights. That could be worth much more to the owners if excitement around the race heats up enough. Owners had also, unfortunately, hoped that as the race neared they could sell pieces of their spots to the owners of hot horses looking to jump in.
Given that all of the excitement around the Pegasus World Cup currently revolves around a Breeders Cup Classic rematch between Arrogate and California Chrome, who were so much the best against the rest of that field, what if the Pegasus World Cup were instead run as a match race?
Hear me out.
There hasn’t been a high-stakes match race since Ruffian met Foolish Pleasure at Belmont Park in 1975. That race ended in tragedy, with Ruffian breaking down. The trauma of that race lingered for a long time, and very likely had an effect on the disappearance of match races on the Thoroughbred racing circuit. Prior to that race, match races were often employed similarly to the Pegasus World Cup—a way for well-heeled owners to pit their horses and their bankrolls against each other. A match race was ultimately a high-stakes prop bet between two owners, with the world as an audience. There was a lot of wheeling and dealing around the conditions of the race and the purse (or bet), just like The Stronach Group envisioned for the Pegasus World Cup. More importantly, match races capitalized on rivalries between dominant horses, just like California Chrome and Arrogate.
If the owners of the remaining spots are more interested in the revenue a race will generate rather than purse money, and if the owners of the other top horses in the world feel as discouraged as Ron Winchell about their chances against California Chrome and Arrogate, perhaps a $12 million match race could be the answer.
The owners of the remaining spots would combine their interest in the race, with one or the other of the two top horses, or perhaps taking differing percentages of each. The excitement and publicity generated by a $12 million match race would bring quite a bit of sponsorship and media money.
The spectacle of it all would bring higher television ratings, suck in casual fans to take a rooting interest in one of the horses, create fan bases for each horse larger than either could imagine, and present the spot owners with their best opportunity to profit from their investment in the event itself. The race would be bad for gamblers, but maybe that’s OK. Rather than try to beat a favorite, we could all enjoy a horse race because we were rooting for a horse as fans rather than as bettors. We’re not going to get a good price anyway.
There are plenty of reasons why this might not be a good idea. Match races are not usually the best way to find out which horse is the best horse, since horses seldom race in such small fields and train for races with multiple competitors. The uniqueness of the match race means the result is probably an outlier. Still, someone has to win, and the money makes it pretty interesting for California Chrome’s and Arrogate’s connections.
The race is already a match race. Let’s just make it official—and a lot more interesting.