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.
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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.
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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.
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.
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.