The horses are entered and post positions have been drawn, which means the stage is set for Gulfstream Park’s Grade I Pegasus World Cup Invitational. The $3 million race will be contested at 1 1/8 miles Saturday.
NBC will telecast the Pegasus World Cup Invitational and Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational from 4:30-6 p.m. ET.
One of the Pegasus World Cup contenders, Grade I Cigar Mile winner True Timber, was a last-minute defection.
True Timber’s trainer, Jack Sisterson, who is based at Florida’s Palm Meadows, tweeted Wednesday: “True Timber came up slightly off cooling out this morning. While it appears he might be able to run in the Pegasus, we always prioritize the best interest of the horse and have elected to defer to caution and not compete in the Pegasus.”
The absence of True Timber opened the door for Last Judgment to get into the field of 12. Last Judgment is coming back just seven days after winning Gulfstream’s Sunshine Classic.
Below is the Pegasus field in post position order (with morning-line odds and jockey in parentheses):
1. Sleepy Eyes Todd (8-1, Jose Ortiz)
2. Coastal Defense (15-1, Corey Lanerie)
3. Independence Hall (20-1, Flavien Prat)
4. Knicks Go (5-2, Joel Rosario)
5. Jesus’ Team (8-1, Irad Ortiz Jr.)
6. Kiss Today Goodbye (10-1, Mike Smith)
7. Tax (5-1, Luis Saez)
8. Harpers First Ride (10-1, Angel Cruz)
9. Last Judgment (20-1, Paco Lopez)
10. Code of Honor (9-2, Tyler Gaffalione)
11. Mr Freeze (15-1, John Velazquez)
12. Math Wizard (20-1, Edgar Zayas)
Now it’s time to try and pick the winner. These are my Pegasus selections:
1. Knicks Go
2. Code of Honor
3. Jesus’ Team
4. Kiss Today Goodbye
Knicks Go boasts the best last-race Beyer Speed Figure. He recorded a 108 Beyer when he won the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile as the 9-5 favorite at Keeneland on Nov. 7.
This makes Knicks Go similar to three of the first four Pegasus winners in that Arrogate, Gun Runner and City of Light all sported the best last-race Beyer and exited a Breeders’ Cup race.
Another reason I’m picking Knicks Go to win is his splendid form since Brad Cox has taken over as the trainer. For Cox, Knicks Go is three for three, winning by 7 1/2, 10 1/4 and 3 1/2 lengths.
A 5-year-old Maryland-bred son of Paynter, Knicks Go has posted Beyer Speed Figures of 100, 107 and 108 for Cox. When previously trained by Ben Colebrook, Knicks Go did not record a single triple-digit Beyer in 14 starts (though he did run well enough to win the Grade I Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland at 2).
When Knicks Go romped to a 10 1/4-length win in an allowance/optional claiming affair Oct. 4 at Keeneland, his final time of 1:40.79 that day broke the track record. He then broke another track record when his final time of 1:33.85 on a lightning-fast track bettered the one-mile mark of 1:34.54 established by Liam’s Map when he won the 2015 BC Dirt Mile.
The Pegasus will be the farthest that Knicks Go has raced. This is a legitimate concern, especially since he also has not started since Nov. 7. But it’s not as if Knicks Go was weakening late in his three races for Cox. In fact, Knicks Go increased his lead in the final furlong in all three of those races, which might bode well for him in terms of his longer 1 1/8-mile trip Saturday.
“I really do think he’ll handle a mile and an eighth,” Cox said. “In his three races with us last year, there was horse left. In the Breeders’ Cup, Joel reached up and grabbed him four or five jumps from the wire, so he was still going.”
To illustrate what a terrific 2020 Cox had, he is one of three finalists in Eclipse Award voting for outstanding trainer of the year, the other two being Hall of Famers Bob Baffert and Steve Asmussen.
Still another reason I’m going with Knicks Go to win the Pegasus is it looks like the pace probably will be moderate. That should help him. All four past Pegasus winners had the lead with three furlongs left to run and remained in the lead the rest of the way. I think Knicks Go has a very good chance to be leading with three furlongs to go. That would put him in a prime posititon to win the race.
All in all, I think Knicks Go will have what it takes to succeed this Saturday. But if he doesn’t get the job done, I think there are several who have the credentials to win this lucrative event.
Code of Honor is a classy sort who certainly merits respect. Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey trains the 5-year-old Kentucky-bred son of Noble Mission.
This will be Code of Honor’s first start since he finished second as the 8-5 favorite in the Grade I Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs on Nov. 27. His biggest win so far came in the Grade I Travers Stakes at Saratoga in 2019.
It’s hard to envision Code of Honor finishing out of the superfecta Saturday. In 15 lifetime starts, the only time he has ended up worse than fourth was when he ran seventh in the Grade I BC Classic at Santa Anita in 2019.
I would not be surprised if Jesus’ Team gets into the superfecta Saturday. Jose D’Angelo conditions the 4-year-old Kentucky-bred Tapiture colt.
Jesus’ Team finished third (albeit far behind Swiss Skydiver and Authentic) in the Grade I Preakness Stakes last Oct. 3 at Pimlico when dismissed at 40-1 in the wagering. He was an even bigger price, 62-1, when he then ran second to Knicks Go in the BC Dirt Mile. After the Breeders’ Cup, Jesus’ Team prevailed by three-quarters of a length as the 2-5 favorite in the Claiming Crown Jewel at Gulfstream on Dec. 5.
I think Kiss Today Goodbye might hit the board at a nice price. Eric Kruljac trains the 4-year-old Kentucky-bred Cairo Prince colt.
Kiss Today Goodbye looked good when he kicked away from his foes in the final furlong to win an allowance/optional claiming race by 2 3/4 lengths as the 3-2 favorite at Del Mar on Nov. 14. He received a 93 Beyer Speed Figure for that effort.
And then Kiss Today Goodbye ran even better when he rallied from off the pace with gusto to win Santa Anita’s Grade II San Antonio Stakes by a half-length at 15-1. Mucho Gusto finished fourth. Mucho Gusto, now retired, won the 2020 Pegasus at Gulfstream by 4 1/2 lengths.
Kiss Today Goodbye registered a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure on one occasion last year. He was credited with a 101 Beyer when third behind Thousand Words and Honor A.P. in the Shared Belief Stakes at Del Mar last Sept. 6.
Two horses are returning to the 2021 Pegasus after running in the 2020 renewal. They are Mr Freeze (the runner-up last year) and Tax (who finished ninth).
When Mr Freeze was last seen under silks, he finished fifth in the Clark at odds of 9-1.
Tax rolled to a 4 1/2-length win and recorded a 105 Beyer in Gulfstream’s Grade III Harlan’s Holiday Stakes on Dec. 12.
Sleepy Eyes Todd goes into this Saturday’s Pegasus off back-to-back seven-furlong wins in Keeneland’s Lafayette Stakes on Nov. 7 and Gulfstream’s Grade III Mr. Prospector Stakes on Dec. 19. He won last year’s Grade II Charles Town Classic at 1 1/8 miles, same distance as the Pegasus.
Independence Hall finished fifth in Santa Anita’s Grade I Malibu Stakes on Dec. 26. Trainer Michael McCarthy was baffled as to why Independence Hall did not run better.
“For one reason or another, which I can’t put my finger on, he just did not seem to fire that day,” McCarthy was quoted as saying in a story about Independence Hall on the Gulfstream Park website. “I have to draw a line through it. The horse has trained forwardly since.”
Like many others, I am looking forward to seeing what happens in the 2021 Pegasus World Cup Invitational. This race has become one of the highlights early each year on the American racing stage.
ESSENTIAL QUALITY NEARING 2021 DEBUT
In addition to training the morning-favorite in this Saturday’s Pegasus, Cox put a pair of talented 3-year-olds -- Essential Quality and Travel Column -- through a team drill last Monday in Louisiana at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots.
Daily Racing Form’s Marcus Hersh reported: “The pair worked heads up, Cox said, both getting a time of 1:01.40 for five furlongs, and while Essential Quality is the more accomplished horse, faster on the Beyer Speed Figure scale, Travel Column definitely held her own, according to her trainer.”
Travel Column’s “a great work horse,” Cox added.
Essential Quality ranks No. 1 on my current Kentucky Derby Top 10. The Kentucky-bred Tapit colt is three for three. Winner of Keeneland’s Grade I Breeders’ Futurity last Oct. 3 and Grade I BC Juvenile on that same track Nov. 6, he is an overwhelming favorite to be voted a 2020 Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male.
Travel Column, ninth early, had a troubled trip and still managed to win the Grade II Golden Rod Stakes by one length at Churchill on Nov. 28. The Kentucky-bred Frosted filly has won two of three career starts.
Cox has said the plan is for Essential Quality to make his first 2021 start in the Grade II Risen Star Stakes at 1 1/8 miles in New Orleans on Feb. 13 or Oaklawn Park’s Grade III Southwest Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on Feb. 15.
There is a possibility the Southwest will be a rematch from the BC Juvenile between Essential Quality and Jackie’s Warrior. The Southwest is the first 2021 target for Jackie’s Warrior, according to Asmussen. The Southwest also is under consideration for Keepmeinmind, another who competed in the BC Juvenile.
In the BC Juvenile, Jackie’s Warrior raced close to a hot pace, weakened in the final furlong and finished fourth as the 4-5 favorite. Essential Quality rallied to prevail by three-quarters of a length at odds of 7-2. Hot Rod Charlie ran second as a huge 94-1 longshot, while Keepmeinmind finished third at 30-1 as a maiden.
Keepmeinmind won his next start, the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs on Nov. 28.
Senor Buscador, who is No. 8 on my Kentucky Derby Top 10, currently is training at Sam Houston Race Park and could show up in either the Risen Star or Southwest.
Senor Buscador is two for two. After winning a 5 1/2-furlong sprint by 2 1/2 lengths at Remington Park on Nov. 6, he closed with a rush after trailing early in a field of 10 to win the Springboard Mile by 5 3/4 lengths there on Dec. 18.
Life Is Good, who is two for two and ranked No. 2 on my Kentucky Derby Top 10, was flattered by Uncle Boogie last Sunday at Santa Anita. Uncle Boogie finished
Concert Tour, an impressive debut winner last Friday at Santa Anita for Baffert, debuts on my Top 10 all the way up at No. 3, just below Life Is Good, who also resides in the powerful Baffert barn.
Sent away as the even-money favorite in a six-furlong maiden sprint, Concert Tour bounded home a 3 1/2-length winner for owners Gary and Mary West, who bred the Street Sense colt in Kentucky. Concert Tour’s sire won the 2007 Kentucky Derby winner.
How badly do you think the Wests want to win the Kentucky Derby after what happened in 2019? In the Run for the Roses that year, Maximum Security finished first by 1 3/4 lengths, but then was disqualified and placed 17th. Maximum Security had his number taken down when the stewards ruled that he had drifted out and caused interference to War of Will, Bodexpress and Long Range Toddy.
I have no doubt there will be those who think I should not rank Concert Tour at No. 3 off just one start in a six-furlong maiden race. But keep in mind the horse he supplanted at No. 3, Prime Factor, has made only one start in a six-furlong maiden race.
Concert Tour was credited with an 88 Beyer Speed Figure for his Jan. 15 victory. That’s higher than the 85 Beyer that Prime Factor received for his 8 3/4-length debut win at Gulfstream on Dec. 12.
Prime Factor, trained by Todd Pletcher (who is a lock to be voted into the Hall of Fame this year in his first year of eligibility), had a workout last Sunday in Florida at Palm Beach Downs. The Kentucky-bred Quality Road colt was clocked in 1:01.40 for his five-furlong drill.
Yet another 3-year-old trained by Baffert, Medina Spirit, is No. 7 on my Top 10. The Florida-bred Protonico colt finished second, just three-quarters of a length behind Life Is Good, in the Sham. Medina Spirit finally had his first workout following the Sham when he stepped four furlongs in :49.80 at Santa Anita last Saturday.
Midnight Bourbon is a newcomer on my Top 10 this week at No. 10. Dropping out of the Top 10 are Mutasaabeq and Mandaloun.
Mandaloun was backed down to 4-5 favoritism in the Lecomte, but 7-2 Midnight Bourbon led from the start and won by one length and was credited with a 91 Beyer Speed Figure. Proxy, off at 8-1, ran second in the field of eight. Mandaloun finished third, a head behind Proxy.
Midnight Bourbon, like Jackie’s Warrior, is trained by Asmussen. In the Lecomte, Midnight Bourbon was making his first start since finished third, 14 1/4 lengths behind the victorious Jackie’s Warrior, in the Grade I Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park last Oct. 10.
This is my up-to-date Kentucky Derby Top 10:
1. Essential Quality
2. Life Is Good
3. Concert Tour
4. Prime Factor
5. Hot Rod Charlie
7. Medina Spirit
8. Senor Buscador
9. Jackie’s Warrior
10. Midnight Bourbon
MANY SADDENED BY DEATHS OF HEADLEY & WESS
The California racing community continues to mourn the passing of two highly respected individuals, longtime trainer Bruce Headley and publicist/racing executive Nat Wess.
Headley died last Friday from the effects of a stroke at Arcadia Methodist Hospital across the street from Santa Anita. He was 86.
Wess died last Thursday in Minnesota. He was 81. The Paulick Report obituary stated that Wess had been hospitalized since Dec. 31 after suffering a hip fracture and requiring surgery. While hospitalized, he tested positive for COVID-19, according to an email distributed to members of the Minnesota Racing Commission shared with the Paulick Report.
Headley is best known as the trainer of Kona Gold, who was voted a 2000 Eclipse Award as champion sprinter following his victory that year in the Grade I BC Sprint.
It was to the credit of both Kona Gold and Headley that the Kentucky-bred Java Gold gelding ran in five consecutive BC Sprints, finishing third in 1998, second in 1999, first in 2000, seventh in 2001, then fourth in 2002.
Headley was the original trainer of Bertrando, who was three for three going into the 1991 BC Juvenile, including wins in the Grade I Del Mar Futurity and Grade I Norfolk Stakes. But Bertrando had to settle for second in the Grade I BC Juvenile when no match for the dazzling Arazi.
Of Headley’s many achievements, one he once told me that he was especially proud of was winning a Grade II race with a 9-year-old when Softshoe Sure Shot pulled off a $38.20 upset in the 1995 San Carlos Handicap. In addition to winning a Grade II affair with an equine senior citizen, no doubt another reason it was an extra-special win for Headley was Bertrando -- trained at that time by John Shirreffs -- finished sixth. Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel also trained Bertrando for a period of time. Frankel was Bertrando’s conditioner in 1993, the year that the California-bred son of Skywalker was voted an Eclipse Award as champion older male.
To say Bruce Headley was a colorful character would be putting it mildly. I can attest that he also was a fierce competitor on the basketball court. Back in the 1980s, a number of people who worked at the Southern California tracks played hoops on Tuesday afternoons at a church just a few furlongs from Santa Anita. I was a regular at those games.
I will never forget one time when Headley was on my team. His idea of playing basketball was it should be played much like football. After I made a few shots that day, Headley came up with a plan.
“Look,” he said. “Here’s what we’re gonna do. I’m gonna set screens for you. Got it? And when I do, you use my screen to keep on shooting.”
A few minutes later, true to his word, Headley set a screen for me. Let’s just say that he did not set the screen in a meek fashion. With Headley shielding me from my defender, I hit the shot.
“Atta boy, dead eye,” Headley said with a big grin on his face, as if we just had won the NBA championship.
When I looked over at Headley, I saw that he was bleeding from a nasty cut on his face. When he set the screen, he had been struck in the head by an elbow. I was concerned. I thought he should consider going to the hospital.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he said, seemingly irked that I’d even ask him that question. “It’s nothing, just a little scratch. You just keep making those shots, dead eye.”
Despite the cut, Headley kept right on playing basketball for another hour or so until we all decided it was time to go home.
For years and years after that, almost every single time I’d see Bruce Headley at the track, either in the morning or the afternoon, he’d say, “How’s it goin’ dead eye?”
As for Nat Wess, I have never, ever seen a harder worker.
I first met Wess at Louisiana Downs in 1980. He was Hollywood Park’s director of publicity at the time. I was working as a writer for the Daily Racing Form. Wess was there to attend the first Super Derby.
In 1981, our paths crossed again. I was promoted by the DRF to join Mike Marten as the two writers covering the sport on the Southern California circuit. I showed up at Hollywood Park in April to begin my new job.
In those years, I saw first-hand how Nat, as the head of that track’s publicity department, did so much to promote horse racing in general and Hollywood Park in particular.
“Wess, who always appeared to be a bundle of nervous energy, is remembered by racing writers for the patience, helpfulness and kindness he showed to those who were just beginning their careers,” the Paulick Report’s obituary noted. “He was an old-school promoter, learning the ropes from the late Bob Benoit and employing props and publicity photos to promote big races and star horses.”
As Hollywood Park’s director of publicity, Wess helped launch the pick six at that track in 1980, a wager that caught on at tracks all across the country. Hollywood Park also was known in those days for its giveaways of tote bags and various other items that proved so popular the track routinely attracted crowds of over 60,000 and as high as 80,348 on May 4, 1980.
It was Wess’ goal to become a general manager. After leaving Hollywood Park, he spent time as the assistant general manager at Canterbury Downs (now Canterbury Park) and Bay Meadows. He became the general manager of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association (CTBA) in 1989, a position he held until 1995.
At the CTBA, Wess played an important role in the introduction of the California Cup, aka the Cal Cup, a day featuring various stakes races for California-breds. The Cal Cup was inspired by the success of the Breeders’ Cup nationally and the Maryland Million in that state.
Not only did Wess help get the Claiming Crown off the ground at Canterbury, for many years he was the glue that sustained that event for “blue collar horses.”
The Cal Cup, which is held each year at Santa Anita, was launched in 1990. The Claiming Crown, which now has a home at Gulfstream Park, was inaugurated in 1999.
Nat Wess was at Hollywood Park on May 17, 1981, the day that I met my future wife, Tracy Gantz. He also was among those looking on the day I married Tracy on Nov. 27, 1983.
One of my fondest Nat Wess memories is from a 70’s party that Tracy and I once threw. Let’s just say watching Nat Wess do all the hand gestures to the song “YMCA” is an image that I will never forget.