Fourteen horses entered the 2nd running of the Grade 1, $16.3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational, with 12 expected to run. In spite of there being some very interesting horses among the dozen that will break from the gate for the mile and one-eighth journey in the world's richest race, there is no getting past Gun Runner as the horse to beat. Having won five of six races in 2017 including the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Classic for his fourth consecutive win, Gun Runner should be very tough to beat particularly as he has won his last four races at the distance. In a race in which the runner-up earns $1.6 million for second and in which the third finisher earns $1 million, there are a few horses with a slight chance to post the upset win but with a more than decent shot to be in the top three at the end. That group is led by Collected, the Breeders' Cup Classic runner-up who is making his second start off a layoff. Giant Expectations posted the upset over Collected in the Grade 2 San Antonio Stakes last month and must be respected. Seeking the Soul won the Grade 1 Clark Handicap last fall at the distance of the Pegasus and is another proven at the level. Fear the Cowboy is a course specialist who has won four of six races at Gulfstream Park including the Grade 3 Harlan's Holiday Stakes last month. Horses that can be competitive but may not be good enough to win include West Coast and Sharp Azteca. West Coast was a dual grade 1 winner in 2017 when capturing the Travers Stakes and Pennsylvania Derby back-to-back versus his own age group. Sharp Azteca is a horse with brilliant early speed who has the ability to come from behind as well, as evidenced winning the Grade 1 Cigar Mile Handicap in December.
In handicapping a race with the intention of wagering, there can be a significant difference between the “Best Horse,” the one most probable to win, and the “Best Bet,” the horse representing the wager most likely to help make a profit short term and long term. There is no doubt Gun Runner is the “Best Horse” in the Pegasus based on his body of work. Gun Runner first proved himself at this level in the fall of 2016 when winning the Clark Handicap at the distance of the Pegasus, two races later finishing second to the then streaking Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup. After a short freshening, Gun Runner was ready after a couple of months and easily won the Stephen Foster Stakes by seven lengths, with a then career-best 127 Equibase Speed Figure. What followed were two more dominating efforts winning the Whitney Stakes (127 figure) and Woodward Stakes (132 figure). In his final start of 2017, Gun Runner easily defeated 10 other horses in the Breeders' Cup Classic with a 130 figure effort to cement his standing as the best older handicap division horse in North America last year. Although there may be questions regarding coming back from nearly three months off and what some say may be a disadvantageous post position for the Pegasus owing to the quick run to the first turn, neither of those issues concern me. This is because Gun Runner returned from nearly three months off last February to win easily in his 2017 debut and because the outside post for this nine furlong trip isn't as bad as some people think it is. According to Stats Race Lens, horses breaking from post positions nine and up at this distance won four times in the last year. As such, Gun Runner is going to be very difficult to beat in this year's Pegasus.
Now that we've gotten past the “Best Horse” we can talk about the “Best Bet” and there are two of them in my opinion, starting with Collected, who opens at 8 to 1 odds. In the Breeders' Cup Classic, Collected ran second from start to finish behind Gun Runner and prior to that he won the Pacific Classic. Those efforts earned 127 and 128 figures, respectively, which were as good as those earned by Gun Runner in two of his four victories last year. When Collected returned from a short rest on December 26 for the San Antonio Stakes, he ran nothing like he had run in his five previous starts and was a well beaten third as the prohibitive favorite. Since then, trainer Bob Baffert stated “We didn't really super-crank him for it” regarding the San Antonio, adding “We're taking the Pegasus with a different approach” and “He'll be ready.” As such ,there is no doubt in my mind Collected can run back to his 2017 efforts at the least, which could lead to a top effort good enough for a second or third place finish and perhaps even the upset win.
The other “Best Bet” might be Giant Expectations, who posted the upset at 13 to 1 in the San Antonio Stakes over Collected. Like Collected, Giant Expectations is a newly turned five year old with 13 races under his belt. He has won four of those races, including the Pat O'Brien Stakes in which he earned a career-best 118 figure. Showing versatility in winning from off the pace as well as winning while in front from start to finish, Giant Expectations has never run this far but his sire (Frost Giant) has produced horses that have, including a full brother and so I have little concern about him being able to handle the distance. With Hall-of-Fame jockey Gary Stevens in the saddle the same as for the San Antonio and Pat O'Brien, Giant Expectations can improve in his second start following nearly two months off and if he does could run a lot better than his 30/1 starting odds suggest he can.
Seeking the Soul and Fear the Cowboy are two others that I will consider as contenders, not necessarily to win (although I won't rule their chances out entirely) but definitely to be in the top three. Seeking the Soul won his last two starts of 2017 including the Clark Handicap with a career-best 117 figure and at the distance of the Pegasus. Jockey John Velazquez rode Seeking the Soul for the first time in the Clark and rides back, another sign for the same or better as in that race. Fear the Cowboy has run well over many tracks in his career, with nine victories including four at Gulfstream Park. He won the Harlan's Holiday Stakes last month over the track with a 115 figure effort and last year he won the Skip Away Stakes at the distance of the Pegasus.
Two other horses some handicappers and fans will be interested in are ones I don't consider as win contenders, although they might finish in the top four. West Coast finished a non-threatening third in the Breeders' Cup Classic in his most recent start. In the race he ran third pretty much from start to finish. The 125 figure he earned was more a reflection of how well Gun Runner ran than his own effort, and the horses behind him aren't anywhere near as good as Gun Runner, Collected or a few others in here. Previous to the Classic, West Coast won five stakes race in a row but all were against three year olds only and he has yet to prove he can compete at this level versus older horses. Additionally, before the Classic his figures in the Travers and in the Pennsylvania Derby were 110 and those aren't going to cut it in this field. Sharp Azteca is a brilliant racehorse with eight wins in 16 races. He finished second in the Breeder's Cup Mile with a 132 figure in November then won the Cigar Mile with a 126 figure in December. The word “mile” is the key to his success, because even though Sharp Azteca has won up to a mile and one-sixteenth, he has never raced at this mile and one-eighth distance. Based on breeding, Sharp Azteca may not be as good at this distance as he has been at shorter distances. According to Stats Race Lens, sons and daughters of his sire Freud have a combined one for twenty-eight record at nine furlongs. As such, I can Sharp Azteca finishing second or third in the Pegasus but I can't see him winning.
The rest of the field, with their best representative Equibase Speed Figures, is also-eligible Game Over (104), also eligible Giuseppe the Great (103), Gunnevera (106), Singing Bullet (110), Stellar Wind (114), Toast of New York (112) and War Story (111).
Win contenders with win probability and comparable odds:
Gun Runner 55% (4/5)
Collected 20% (4/1)
Giant Expectations 10% (9/1)
Seeking the Soul 9% (10/1)
Fear the Cowboy 6% (16/1)
In the Money contender:
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