Breeders’ Cup winners go head-to-head in Pegasus World Cup

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The legendary musical Fiddler On The Roof begins with an ode to the importance of “Tradition.”

In the sports world, traditions are cherished, and change does not come easily. It took a lot of persuasion in the early 1980’s for John Gaines, John Nerud and others to launch a concept like the Breeders’ Cup. While it lessened the importance of what had been title-deciding races, such as the Champagne Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup, it helped the American racing industry to establish what have become true World Championships.

One tradition that did not change, however, was that races of importance tended to be run in the span between the early spring and the fall, culminating with the Breeders’ Cup. There was winter racing of significance in the warm weather climates, but these races had very little influence on who would win Eclipse Awards.

RELATED: How to watch Pegasus World Cup 2022: TV channel, live stream, start time

It takes persuasion and outside-the-box thinking to challenge tradition, and that is what the Stronach Group did when they established the Pegasus World Cup in 2017. They took the Donn Handicap, a Grade 1 stakes race that took place in January and was generally forgotten by the end of the year, and converted it into a race that had real importance. In its earliest years, inflated by “stake money” from owners, it had purses that ran as high as $12 million. In recent years, with the “stake money” concept discontinued, it still has had a purse of $3 million, which matches the Kentucky Derby. In addition, the Pegasus World Cup Turf was added in 2019 with a juicy purse of $1 million. The emerging star Bricks and Mortar used that race as the first leg of an undefeated Horse of the Year season that year.

The traditions of racing implied that important races would not be run in the end of January, but the Pegasus concept has changed all that. With NBC as their broadcast partner, Gulfstream Park has created a racing program of true significance in an unlikely spot on the calendar. Part of the brilliance of their concept was to recognize that a star of the sport could “squeeze in” one last start in the Pegasus before heading off to the breeding farms to start a new career. The superstar Gun Runner made his final start in the Pegasus, capping off a career with earnings of nearly $16 million. By winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the Pegasus World Cup in dominant back-to-back fashion, he made it a virtual certainty that he would enter the Hall of Fame in the near future.

RELATED: Knicks Go wins $3 million Pegasus World Cup

Another attractive aspect of the Pegasus is its distance of a mile and an eighth. Last year saw Knicks Go and Jesus’ Team, the 1-2 finishers in the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, repeat their 1-2 finish in the Pegasus. This year, a return by Knicks Go presents two intriguing possiblilities. He could become the first back-to-back winner of the Pegasus, which would send him to the breeding shed with career earnings of over $10 million. Also, it could present only the second time that the previous year’s winners of the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile and the Breeders’ Cup Classic have matched up in the Pegasus. The first matchup was in 2019, when the 2018 Dirt Mile winner, City of Light, defeated Classic winner Accelerate, who finished 3rd.

Competition at the 2021 Breeders' Cup

Knicks Go is expected to get a stout challenge from Life Is Good, the winner of the Dirt Mile by nearly 6 lengths. It doesn’t get much better than a matchup like this coming right after dominant wins in the Breeders’ Cup. At a mile and an eighth, it’s a fair test, as Knicks Go would shorten up by a furlong, and Life Is Good would stretch out by a furlong off their Breeders’ Cup efforts. Since both horses run on or close to the pace, it shapes up as a race that could test them to their limits.

Competition at 2021 Breeders' Cup

If racing had stuck to its traditions, a potential matchup like this, in the aftermath of Breeders’ Cup glory, would not take place. No matter what the outcome, the fact that the Pegasus concept can lead to a potential race of this magnitude proves that it has arrived as a major event on the racing calendar. Here’s to hoping that it can establish a new tradition that will last for a long time and deliver memorable races!

How can I watch the 2022 Pegasus World Cup?

NBC Sports is home to the 2022 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.

About the Author: Al Bernstein has worked as a statistician on NBC’s horse racing telecasts since the inaugural Breeders’ Cup in 1984.

Flightline, Pletcher, Godolphin lead way at Eclipse Awards

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Pat McDonogh/USA TODAY NETWORK
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PALM BEACH, Fla. — Flightline ran away in all six of his races, and ran away with top honors at the Eclipse Awards on Thursday night.

And trainer Todd Pletcher, for the first time in nearly a decade, received the sport’s top prize as well.

Flightline – the now-retired winner of last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic to cap an unbeaten six-race career – won Horse of the Year as well as the Eclipse as top Older Dirt Male. It was no surprise that Flightline took home both awards, and he’s now standing stud.

“We’ll hope that his future is as bright as his past,” co-owner Kosta Hronis said.

Godolphin was also a double winner, sweeping the Eclipses as top owner and top breeder for the second consecutive year. It was also the third consecutive top-owner Eclipse for Godolphin.

“This is truly a golden era for Godolphin racing,” said Michael Banahan, the stable’s director of bloodstock. “And these awards and accolades recognize how special it is.”

It was Pletcher’s eighth Eclipse, extending his record for the most by any trainer, and his first since 2014. It was one of the few close races in the voting; Pletcher got 108 first-place votes, while four-time Eclipse winner Chad Brown got 95 and finished second.

“This really is not an individual award. This is a team award,” Pletcher said. “This is an award about the owners, and most importantly, the horses.”

Irad Ortiz Jr. won the Eclipse as top jockey for the fourth time in the last five years; he tied Pat Day and Javier Castellano for third-most in history, behind only seven-time winner Jerry Bailey and five-time winner Laffit Pincay Jr.

Ortiz led all jockeys with more than $37 million in purses in 2022.

“Wow,” Ortiz said. “It’s been an amazing year for me.”

Forte won the Eclipse as 2-year-old male, and will enter this year’s Triple Crown season as one of the early favorites.

“We’re all in this game for a horse like Forte,” said Mike Repole, the horse’s co-owner along with Florida Panthers owner Vincent Viola and Teresa Viola. “We’re all in this game to one day maybe own a 2-year-old that has a chance. It’s great to have the Kentucky Derby favorite. … Forte’s an incredible horse.”

Epicenter won the 3-year-old male Eclipse, after running second at both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, then winning the Jim Dandy and Travers at Saratoga over the summer.

Wonder Wheel was the winner as 2-year-old filly, while Nest won the Eclipse in the 3-year-old filly division. Malathaat was the Eclipse winner for older dirt female, Goodnight Olive for female sprinter and Regal Glory for female turf horse.

Elite Power was picked as the top male sprinter, Modern Games won the Eclipse for male turf horse, and Hewick was the Eclipse winner in the steeplechase division.

Jose Antonio Gomez won as top apprentice jockey.

The Eclipse Awards are voted on by members of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the Daily Racing Form and National Turf Writers And Broadcasters.

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

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Courier Journal/USA TODAY Sports
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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.