Unusual Preakness sets up enduring * for 2020 Triple Crown

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We are approaching the end of Preakness week, which is customarily one of the most delightfully singular weeks of the sports calendar, for those who follow thoroughbred horse racing’s Triple Crown, which is a lot more people than those who simply follow horse racing. (*The word customarily, in this or any other context, as applied in the present, is unmoored from its own usual meaning. There are no established customs in 2020. But you knew that already). Moving on: It is during Preakness Week that racing – customarily — trades the outsized corporate excess/down-home traditional charm (either one, or both) of the Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs for the gritty reality of Pimlico, which hosted the famous 1937 match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral and has been painted over a few times since then.

Preakness week is when racing fans – and journalists, too – tighten their vision from the sprawling 20-horse dreamscape of the Derby to, for the most part, the simple question of whether one of those 20 horses can win again, two weeks later, at nearly the same distance, and thus move on to New York with a chance to win the Triple Crown. It’s an unfairly narrow story line that excludes too many angles, but it’s been a powerful narrative that draws eyeballs to Baltimore. Many sports would pay for such a ready-made plot. It is also the week when Preakness fans, having heard and witnessed the Derby revelry, give a side-eye and say, “Hold my Black-eyed Susan.’’ (Google “Preakness porta johns.’’ Or not. Probably not. You get the idea).

MORE: Watch the Preakness Stakes on NBC, Saturday at 4:30 pm ET

In all, it is a week that – yes, customarily – feels more like a sporting event than a cultural phenomenon (although, sure, there’s some of that, too), both in spite of and because of the run-down setting. It is about the race, about one horse, and about what lies three weeks and few hundred miles down the road. (They also serve crab cakes in the press box on Saturday, a nice touch considering we’re there for 12 hours and for every second of that time, it feels like there is a non-zero chance the entire structure will sink into the earth in pieces. Kidding!…Not really). It is a week for both taking a deep breath and preparing to just maybe see history made.

This year…. [pulling up saved text]…. Is different.

Racing’s Triple Crown re-started before any of the bubbles formed, before college football started – and for some, finished – fighting with itself over a fall season, before the NFL opened training camps, before any of the golf or tennis majors commenced. First the Derby was postponed from its scheduled date of May 2, and then the Preakness from its, which was scheduled for two weeks later. Full stop. Once the Derby and Preakness were postponed, any version of a traditional Triple Crown was gone. Interested parties were more than prepared to argue about the size and merit of any asterisk that would have been applied to a horse that managed to win this particular series of races, and that’s fine. (My take: Nice job, horsey. Well done. Respect. But not a Triple Crown. The Triple Crown is achieved by winning three consecutive races over five weeks in the spring, and the last of those races is 1 ½ miles long).

The New York Racing Association put the final nail in that particular coffin when it decided to move forward with the Belmont Stakes, postponing it two weeks from June 6 to June 20. NYRA also shortened the Belmont from its customary distance of 1 ½ miles (which is rarely run elsewhere) to 1 1/8 miles, (which is run frequently). There was a perfectly fine reason for this change: Belmont horses would not have run the 1 ¼ miles of the Derby or the 1 3/16 miles of the Preakness, and thus might not have been prepared to run 1 ½ miles in June (although they never are really ready to run 1 ½ miles in June, which a big part of the challenge). But in essence, the Belmont became just another race, and in the most denigrating description, a Derby prep.

Horses participating in the 152nd Running of the Belmont Stakes enter the track and empty grandstands during the Belmont Stakes.

Also a strange race. It took place at a hauntingly empty Belmont Park, before sports organizations began finding ways to open their doors to modest-sized crowds. The place was truly locked down and masked. Tiz the Law won the Belmont easily, and appeared to be the best three-year-old in training. He might still be the best. TBD. And that was that. Seventy-seven days passed until Authentic upset Tiz the Law to win the Kentucky Derby. I did not attend that race, choosing the conservative path in my own personal COVID-19 protocols. It was contested with few spectators, but more than the Belmont, and in the shadow of Black Lives Matter protests. I am also not in Baltimore this week, partly for that same reason, although I’d be there if Tiz the Law had won the Derby and was running for a Triple Crown*. My medical conservatism has limits.

It is obvious in the extreme to say that it has been an unusual Triple Crown year, because it has been an unusual – and tragic, and dispiriting, and challenging – year in so many other more important ways. And it continues.

But this is a column about racing, so let’s frame it accordingly.

The Belmont was not a Belmont in any meaningful way, except its name and its trophy. The Derby perhaps more so, but absent its 150,000 fans and against the backdrop of protests that have riven U.S society, its appeal limited, as well, and the drop in the betting handle and TV ratings bore that out. Athletically, it was still 1 ¼ miles at a famous track, but for me, the four months between May and September shift the power of the race, because there is nothing quite like watching a three-year-old win at 10 furlongs in May. I respect that others might not share this view and also respect that my consumption of the Derby was affected by the times we live in, just like consumption of everything else.

Now we are in Baltimore, virtually. (No spectators allowed). Even in normal years, each of the three Triple Crown races has its place. The Derby is the Derby. The Preakness is where the Triple Crown lives on or dies (again, plenty of other angles, but that’s the big one). The Belmont is either a potentially history-making moment or just another big race, depending on what had transpired in Baltimore.

The Preakness (Saturday at 4:30 pm ET on NBC and the NBC Sports app) is a genuinely fascinating race, even though Tiz the Law is not present, but rather training up to the Breeders Cup Classic, on the first full weekend in November at Keeneland in Kentucky. Authentic is entered, and will be favored, and trainer Bob Baffert has also brought back Thousand Words, none the worse after a harrowing back flip in the Derby paddock. There is Art Collector, who was a serious Derby contender until a late withdrawal. And there is the talented filly, Swiss Skydiver. Racing benefits when great fillies race colts.

The Baffert angle in the race is also intriguing, as have been Baffert’s past 13 months. It was just over a year ago that The New York Times broke the story that the Baffert-trained 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify had tested positive for a banned substance after a Derby prep race that qualified him for Kentucky; a subsequent analysis that I reported for NBC Sports strongly suggested that Justify had inadvertently ingested the substance in a plant found at Santa Anita Racetrack, but there was damage to Baffert’s reputation, nevertheless. Last spring, two of Baffert’s best horses, three-year-old filly Gamine and Derby contender Nadal, both tested positive for the regulated substance lidocaine, on the first weekend on May at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. Baffert said that the lidocaine came from a patch that assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes had applied to his creaky back, and that could very well be the truth, but it was one of those exotic PED explanations that the sports world has grown weary of hearing. Eyeballs rolled. (Adding injury to insult, Barnes suffered a broken wrist trying to control Thousand Words in Kentucky).

Baffert is appealing a 15-day suspension prompted by the Arkansas positives. But again, even if he wins that appeal, the episode has been another blow to his reputation. That is not a small detail, because Baffert is by far the most well-known figure in racing, its only real celebrity and a willing voice on nearly any topic.

But there is an odd silver lining for Baffert here. These are…. [once again, saved text]… strange times. Had this been a normal year, a year without a pandemic or social justice protests or a divisive presidential election, there might have been more mainstream scrutiny directed at Baffert. There has been little, because there’s just too much happening and stories about even the most famous man in racing do not break through.

Yet that same cacophonous ecosystem also ensures that the Preakness will occur with nothing resembling its customary notice. It is a college football weekend, an NFL weekend, an NBA Finals weekend, a Major League Baseball playoff weekend. And the pandemic and the election remain in place, a part of all of our lives. It’s an interesting thought exercise to re-imagine this Preakness as the third leg of a potential Triple Crown, which would have been the first consummated in October, and the first completed at the Preakness. The answer is relatively easy: It would be much bigger than it is now, and somewhat smaller than it would have been in June. The rest is in the margins.

And on Saturday evening, it will be over. The cleanup along Northern Boulevard will be more expeditious than usual, and the traffic far lighter. Racing will move on to Keeneland for the Breeders Cup. The sport accomplished something significant by pulling off its Triple Crown, but that’s not a surprise, because across the breadth of the pandemic, approaching seven months now, racing never really stopped for long. Humans went to work, horses trained and raced, and yes, bettors bet. The Triple Crown was just part of that and truly, little more.

But this is in many ways no different than the entire sports world in 2020, shut down in March (again, racing not for long). Bubbles were formed. Compromises were made. Risks were taken (and continue to be taken today). The games and the races remain a form of escapism for fans, but that escape is less complete than if times were normal. We are living in a reality that cannot be fully escaped. Something is missing. NBA Finals in October? The calendar is full of lies. We are all disoriented, even if willing.

Come Saturday night, three Triple Crown races will have been run, out of order, unwatched by many live bodies, one at a strange distance. Trophies will have been awarded, prize money dispensed, breeding rights enhanced. History will show that all this happened — details entered into databases and record books. Boxes joylessly checked. Survival, not true celebration. An enduring asterisk. One sport among many, compromising, squinting through the uncertain haze of the present, seeking a distant normalcy.

Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.

Trainer Bob Baffert’s ban from racing in New York is over

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Bob Baffert can once again enter horses at New York’s major tracks.

The Hall of Fame trainer’s one-year ban by the New York Racing Association ended Wednesday, allowing him to enter horses as soon as Thursday.

“I was disappointed they even did it, but it’s water under the bridge,” Baffert told The Associated Press by phone.

He was suspended last June for repeated medication violations, although none of them occurred in New York. He was barred from Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga. A panel credited Baffert for time served for an initial suspension, which allowed him to return this week.

Aqueduct is currently holding its 44-day winter meet that runs through March 26. Baffert doesn’t typically run horses this time of year in New York; he targets the biggest stakes races at Belmont in the spring and Saratoga in the summer.

Baffert remains under a two-year ban by Churchill Downs Inc., which sidelined him after Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive for a substance that is not allowed on race day. The penalty expires shortly after the Kentucky Derby in May. However, Baffert is fighting the suspension in federal court.

The Southern California-based trainer has a big weekend coming up around the country, although not in New York.

He has horses running at three tracks on Saturday.

Defunded is entered in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream in Florida, where Baffert assistant Jimmy Barnes will be on hand.

Arabian Knight goes into the $750,000 Southwest Stakes as the early favorite at Oaklawn in Arkansas. Baffert has won the Kentucky Derby prep race a record-tying five times and will travel to Hot Springs to watch the 3-year-old colt.

“It’s going to be a good test for him. The only way to find out is to run him long,” he said. “It’s going to take a superior horse to do that and I’m hoping that he is.”

The Southwest offers Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the top five finishers. Arabian Knight won’t receive any points regardless of his placing because of Baffert’s Derby ban.

Hopper will run in the $200,000 San Pasqual Stakes on Saturday at Santa Anita.

On Sunday at the same track, Baffert has entered four of the five horses set to run in the $200,000 San Vicente Stakes for 3-year-olds.

History reveals clues to 2023 Pegasus World Cup

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The 149th running of the Kentucky Derby will take place on May 6th, 2023. By contrast, the Pegasus World Cup will have its 7th running on January 28th, 2023, on NBC and Peacock. While attempts to analyze the history of the Kentucky Derby are usually big broad strokes that look for trends, a race with only 6 previous runnings allows for a “micro” examination of each one of those runnings. My hope is that by looking at the six previous runnings, we can derive an understanding of the importance of this race and its winners. It might also give a sense of the type of horse that is most likely to succeed in the Pegasus.

First, a brief bit of history. Beginning in 2017, the Pegasus took the place of the Donn Handicap as a 9 furlong race for older horses on the schedule at Gulfstream Park. In its final year as the Donn, the race carried a purse of $500,000. By contrast, the Pegasus has had its purse as high as $16,300,000 and seems to have settled at its current purse value of $3 million. When it had inflated purse values, it was because of entry fees as high as $1 million that were put up by the owners of each horse. Currently, it is run as an invitational race, with all the money coming from the purse fund at Gulfstream. With that historical background, here is a look at each of the six previous runnings:

RELATED: How to watch Pegasus World Cup 2023: TV channel, live stream, start time

Pegasus World Cup – Year-by-Year History

1. 2017 Pegasus World Cup

Winner: Arrogate

This looked like a 2-horse race on paper. Coming off wins in the Travers Stakes and the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Arrogate was sent off at ninety cents on the dollar, a deserving odds-on favorite. His main challenger was California Chrome, the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner, who’d had a very strong 5-year-old season, posting wins in the Pacific Classic and the Awesome Again Stakes prior to finishing 2nd to Arrogate in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. “Chrome” was sent off as a very solid 6/5 second choice, and the third choice was 2015 Travers Stakes winner Keen Ice at 16-1.

On this day, everything broke in favor of Arrogate, while California Chrome had an unfortunate trip around the Gulfstream oval. Breaking from the outside post is never good at Gulfstream when going 9 furlongs, and California Chrome, breaking from the 12-post, was forced 6-wide into the first turn. The strain of an outside trip was too much for him on this day, as he faded entering the far turn to finish 9th.

Meanwhile, Mike Smith had a perfect trip on Arrogate. Breaking from the rail, he sat behind longshot pacesetters Noble Bird and Neolithic. Smith brought him around the pacesetters on the far turn, and he went on to romp to a 4 ¾ length victory. His time of 1:46.83 still stands as the Gulfstream track record for a mile and an eighth. It may not have been California Chrome’s best day, but it’s doubtful that any horse could’ve properly challenged Arrogate on this day. It was a spectacular performance as he took the winner’s share of the $12 million purse and provided a remarkable inaugural for the Pegasus World Cup.

2. 2018 Pegasus World Cup

Winner: Gun Runner

Gun Runner was a deserving even-money favorite, and he ran to his form in capturing the winner’s share of the purse of over $16 million. He came into the race off of consecutive wins in the Stephen Foster Stakes, the Whitney Stakes, The Woodward Stakes and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He had a stalking trip in the Pegasus, taking over with three-eighths of a mile to go and winning by 2 ½ lengths over West Coast (a very strong horse in his own right). Gun Runner went to stud at Three Chimneys Farm after the Pegasus, and his offspring have proven to be first-rate. Among them is Cyberknife, a winner of the Haskell Stakes and the Arkansas Derby and a likely top choice in this year’s Pegasus.  Gun Runner retired with career earnings of nearly $16 million, placing him 4th all-time among horses who have raced in North America.

3. 2019 Pegasus World Cup

Winner: City of Light

Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Accelerate was attempting to become the third consecutive horse to win the Classic and the Pegasus in back-to-back fashion. He was sent off as the 3/2 favorite, but the close 2nd choice at 9/5 was Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner City of Light.  As things turned out, Accelerate might’ve fired his best shot in the Breeders’ Cup, while City of Light trained wonderfully coming into the Pegasus and had the mark of a horse who was reaching his peak. He took over the race entering the far turn and went on to win by 5 ¾ lengths over the late closing Seeking The Soul. In the Dirt Mile, Seeking The Soul completed the exacta at 10-1 odds, but in the Pegasus he was 34-1. If you simply bet back the winning exacta from the Dirt Mile, you captured an exacta that paid $82.20 for a $2 ticket. Accelerate finished 3rd, soundly beaten by over 7 lengths. City of Light went to stud at Lane’s End Farm after the Pegasus, and is off to a promising career as a stallion.

4. 2020 Pegasus World Cup 

Winner: Mucho Gusto

This race might’ve been as notable for the horses that didn’t run as it was for those that did. The week of the race, key contenders Omaha Beach and Spun To Run were scratched, Omaha Beach with a minor leg injury and Spun To Run with a skin rash. These were the 1-2 finishers from the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, with Spun To Run winning wire-to-wire and Omaha Beach closing for 2nd. That was the only loss for Omaha Beach in his previous 6 starts, and he had 4 graded stakes wins in that group, including three Grade 1 races. Had he run, he would’ve been the likely favorite.

The absence of these two set up a situation where a horse with a high cruising speed could dominate, and that was exactly what happened. Mucho Gusto was clearly one of the top remaining horses, and he got a brilliant trip under Irad Ortiz, Jr. He sat a few lengths behind front-runner Mr. Freeze, and when Ortiz asked him on the far turn, he took over the race, going on to win by 4 ½ lengths, with Mr. Freeze holding on for second. Hindsight is always 20-20, and the $8.80 win price on Mucho Gusto turned out to be an absolute steal. It reinforced the importance of looking at the entire field and seeing how the pace scenario was likely to play out. In this case, the race played right into the strengths of Mucho Gusto, and he was much the best.

5. 2021 Pegasus World Cup

Winner: Knicks Go

Dominant speed often dominates absolutely, and that was the case in this edition of the Pegasus with Knicks Go. He was coming off a wire-to-wire score in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, winning by 3 ½ lengths over 62-1 shot Jesus’ Team. In the Pegasus, for the second time in three years, the 1-2 finishers from the Dirt Mile repeated their result. This time, Knicks Go was the 6/5 favorite, with Jesus’ Team going off at nearly 12-1.  As expected, Knicks Go dominated on the front end, and Jesus’ Team closed to narrowly capture second. The Pegasus win was one of the highlights of an incredible 2021 season for Knicks Go, as later that year he would post consecutive wins in the Cornhusker Handicap, Whitney Stakes, Lukas Classic and the Breeders’ Cup Classic, leading to his 2021 Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year.

6. 2022 Pegasus World Cup

Winner: Life Is Good

On the odds board, 2021 winner Knicks Go (.90-to-1) and the red-hot Life Is Good (.80-to-1) were virtually co-favorites. The word around Gulfstream that week, however, was that Life Is Good was training magnificently, and he performed accordingly. Life Is Good went wire-to-wire and won by 3 ¼ lengths, with the non-threatening Knicks Go finishing 2nd and 26-1 shot Stiletto Boy finishing 3rd. The top two finishers, however, illustrated the type of matchup that the Pegasus can offer. Not only was it a great matchup of the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner against the Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, but it represented the third time that the Dirt Mile winner (in this case, Life Is Good) was successful stretching out an extra furlong to win the Pegasus. Both horses entered the race in fine form, as well. Knicks Go had won 8 of his previous 10 starts, and Life Is Good had posted 8 wins in 11 career starts. While the Breeders’ Cup Classic usually provides fields with incredible depth, the Pegasus, in 6 runnings, has shown the ability to produce some amazing head-to-head matchups.

RELATED: Cyberknife picked as early favorite for $3 million Pegasus

Pegasus World Cup historical trends

A look at the charts of all 6 runnings of the Pegasus combined with a look at the lifetime records of the winners have produced some handicapping angles as we look forward to this year’s running:

  1. Favorites do well – In 6 runnings, the odds of the winning horse have averaged $1.56-to-1, which would produce a $2 win ticket paying about $5.10. There is money to be made, however, with horses that run “underneath” in exotic wagers. The average odds on the 2nd place finishers have been nearly 13-1, and the average odds of the 3rd place finishers have averaged just over 18-1.
  2. You need to be close up to win – Five of the six Pegasus winners had the lead with 3/8 of a mile to go. The one outlier was Mucho Gusto, who was 2 ½ lengths behind entering the far turn and then took over at the top of the stretch.
  3. Go with the hot horse – Take a look at the records of all 6 winners going into the Pegasus:

2017 – Arrogate entered the race on a 5-race win streak

2018 – Gun Runner had won his last 4 starts

2019 – City Of Light had won 4 of his last 6

2020 – Mucho Gusto had 2 wins, a second and a third in his previous 5 starts

2021 – Knicks Go had won his last 3 starts

2022 – Life Is Good had 5 wins and 1 second in his last 6 starts

Applying these criteria to the 2023 Pegasus World Cup field

  1. Favorites do well – The likely top 4 horses in the wagering this year should be Proxy (rail post will help), White Abarrio (4-for-4 lifetime at Gulfstream will draw serious betting money), Defunded (the Baffert factor and running style work in his favor) and Cyberknife (clearly one of the fastest here, and his flexible running style should help him get positioning and stay out of trouble).
  2. You need to be close up to win – Defunded looks to be the best front runner in a group that features a lot of stalkers and mid-pack runners. The only other front runner of some quality is Art Collector, although this group may be tough for him. Speedsters who are likely to quit include Ridin With Biden and Stilleto Boy. Dangerous stalkers include Simplification, White Abarrio, Skippylongstocking and Cyberknife.
  3. Go with the hot horse – Proxy won the Grade 1 Clark at Churchill in his last, so he fits this category. Defunded has won his last 2 (both graded stakes) out in California. Skippylongstocking exits a win in the Harlan’s Holiday, which is the traditional prep for this race at Gulfstream.  Cyberknife was defeated by a head in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile in his last, and he’s a very consistent performer, finishing 1st or 2nd in 9 of 12 lifetime.

Final notes

Favoritism should be a bit more wide open than it has been in previous runnings of this race.  Defunded looks the best of the front-runners. I would not be surprised to see him get a clear lead with a large pack scrambling just behind him for positioning. Don’t discount White Abarrio’s 4-for-4 record at Gulfstream. Of the “hot horse” group, give a good look at Proxy. His win in the Clark had the mark of an improving type, and the rail could help his positioning.

This look at the history of the race and how it can be applied to the 2023 edition draws no clear conclusions, although it does make an effort to point in the right direction. A large field with no dominant favorite could lead to strong payoffs. Make your wagers and enjoy the telecast from 4:30-6:00 pm ET on NBC and Peacock this Saturday.

How to Watch the 2023 Pegasus World Cup

NBC Sports is home to the 2023 Pegasus World Cup, providing comprehensive race coverage and analysis live on TV, in the NBC Sports app, on NBCSports.com and on Peacock before, during and after the two headlining races. The 2023 Pegasus World Cup Invitational Series will take place on Saturday, January 28 from 4:30 to 6 p.m. ET.