Early Look at the Jan. 23 Pegasus World Cup

Though it has been run only four times, Gulfstream Park’s Pegasus World Cup Invitational has firmly established itself as an important event on the American racing stage. It has become a prime early-year target.

This year’s 1 1/8-mile Pegasus will be held on Jan. 23. With a purse of $3 million; it is one of America’s richest races.

The Pegasus winners have been Arrogate in 2017, Gun Runner in 2018, City of Light in 2019 and Mucho Gusto in 2020.

Mucho Gusto, trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, will not be back to defend his title. It was announced that the 5-year-old Kentucky-bred son of Mucho Macho Man has been retired from racing after emerging from a Jan. 5 gallop at Santa Anita with an injury.

“He came up with a minor soft tissue injury that will knock him out of the Pegasus and Saudi Cup,” the Thoroughbred Daily News quoted Baffert as saying.

Baffert elaborated on Mucho Gusto’s situation to Daily Racing Form’s Steve Andersen,

“He would need a lot of time off to recover,” Baffert said. “We’d have to give him six months, so he’ll be retired.”

Even though the Pegasus has been run just four times, its brief history may offer a clue as to who will be victorious in this year’s renewal. Three of the four winners sported the best last-race Beyer Speed Figure. Those three winners also exited a Breeders’ Cup race.

Arrogate went into the 2017 Pegasus off a half-length win and big 120 Beyer Speed Figure in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park. Arrogate then won the inaugural Pegasus with authority by 4 3/4 lengths as the 9-10 favorite for Baffert.

When Gun Runner ran in the 2018 Pegasus, he was coming off a 2 1/4-length win and 117 Beyer Speed Figure in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar. Gun Runner then won the second Pegasus by 2 1/2 lengths as the 11-10 favorite for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen.

City of Light went into the 2019 Pegaus following a 2 3/4-length win and 110 Beyer Speed Figure in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Churchill Downs. Trained by Michael McCarthy, City of Light trounced his Pegasus foes when he bounded home a 5 3/4-length winner as the 9-5 second choice in the wagering.

The 2020 Pegasus was the first time that the winner did not boast the best last-race Beyer Speed Figure. The best last-race Beyer of 105 belonged to Diamond Oops, a figure he posted when victorious by one length in Gulfstream’s Mr. Prospector Stakes.

Mucho Gusto, coming off only a 95 Beyer Speed Figure when fourth as a 9-10 favorite in the Oklahoma Derby at Remington Park, won the 2020 Pegasus by 4 1/2 lengths at odds of 3-1 for Baffert. Mucho Gusto’s Pegasus was the best performance and final win of his career.

What about this year’s Pegasus? Will the winner again be the starter with the best last-race Beyer Speed Figure? If so, the winner will be Knicks Go.

The best last-race Beyer among the current Pegasus invitees is the 108 that Knicks Go recorded in his 3 1/2-length Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile triumph at Keeneland on Nov. 7 for trainer Brad Cox.

In Knicks Go’s three starts since Cox has taken over the training duties, the 5-year-old Maryland-bred son of Paynter has won in dominant fashion by 7 1/2, 10 1/2 and 3 1/2 lengths.

One possible problem for Knicks Go in the Pegasus is it will be the farthest he’s ever raced. But in all three starts for Cox in races at one mile or 1 1/16 miles, Knicks Go has increased his lead in the final furlong. That’s an encouraging sign in terms of Knicks Go being asked to compete at 1 1/8 miles for the first time.

Knicks Go’s last-race 108 Beyer even exceeds the last-race figure by fellow Pegasus invitee Charlatan. In Charlatan’s most recent start, he registered a 4 1/2-length victory and 106 Beyer Speed Figure in the Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita on Dec. 26.

However, while Charlatan remained on the list of Pegasus invitees as of Jan. 10, he is not expected to be entered. The $20 million Saudi Cup on Feb 21 is the likely next start for Charlatan, according to Baffert. That’s certainly good news for Knicks Go and everyone else eyeing the upcoming Pegasus in light of how terrific Charlatan looked in the Malibu.

True Timber will go into the Pegasus off a sparkling 5 1/2-length win and strong 106 Beyer Speed Figure in the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct on Dec. 5 for trainer Jack Sisterson. True Timber finished eighth in the 2020 Pegasus when trained by Kiaran McLaughlin. True Timber does not seem to be fond of Gulfstream’s main track. In three starts on that track, he has not finished better than fourth.

Pegasus invitee Tax was credited with a 105 Beyer Speed Figure in his most recent start, a 4 1/2-length victory in Gulfstream’s Harlan’s Holiday Stakes on Dec. 12. Trained by Danny Gargan, Tax ran ninth in the 2020 Pegasus.

Another 2020 Pegasus participant invited back to run in this year’s renewal is Mr Freeze. Trained by Dale Romans, Mr Freeze registered a 100 Beyer Speed Figure when he finished second to Mucho Gusto in last year’s Pegasus. In Mr Freeze’s most recent start, he ran fifth and received a 98 Beyer in the Grade I Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs on Nov. 27.

Something else to keep in mind vis-a-vis the 2021 Pegasus is the first four editions were won in the same manner. All four winners raced just off the early pace. Also, all four winners had the lead with three furlongs to go and remained in front the rest of the way.

All in all, I think there is a pretty good chance that 2021 will be like 2017, 2018 and 2019 in that the Pegasus will be won by the horse with the best last-race Beyer Speed Figure, Knicks Go. It’s not hard to envision Knicks Go being in front with three furlongs to go and then staying in front from there to the finish.


SANTA ANITA HONORS BASEBALL LEGEND LASORDA

Last Friday, Santa Anita paid tribute to baseball’s Tommy Lasorda, who died the night before of a heart attack at his home in Fullerton, Calif. He was 93.

Santa Anita placed a saddlecloth with the L.A. Dodgers insignia over the Seabiscuit statute in the track’s walking ring last Friday. After a moment of silence before the first race, Santa Anita hornblower Jay Cohen played “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” to honor Lasorda.

Back in the day, Lasorda could be spotted from time to time attending the races at Santa Anita. He would sit in the box seats section with Hall of Fame trainer Laz Barrera. Lasorda and Barrera became friends when Lasorda was playing winter baseball in Cuba in the 1950s.

When I heard the news that Lasorda had passed away, I immediately thought back to 1969 and 1970, two of my favorite years while growing up in Spokane, Wash. In those years I was a huge fan of the Spokane Indians, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Turbulator (not necessarily in that order).

In the spring of 1969, Lasorda took over as the manager of the Spokane Indians, the Dodgers’ Triple-A farm club in the Pacific Coast League (PCL). In the fall of 1969, Turbulator took Spokane’s Playfair Race Course by storm when he won seven straight races in a little over two months at distances ranging from six furlongs to two miles.

From the get-go, Lasorda tried to increase interest in the Spokane Indians. He discussed it in his 1985 book “The Artful Dodger,” co-written by David Fisher.

“Naturally, this being my first season in Spokane, I wanted to get the people of that city excited about their team,” Lasorda said. “I started in spring training. It was my responsibility to call the Spokane newspapers from Vero Beach [Florida] after every exhibition game to report the line score and highlights. And every day, I would call and tell them that we’d won. It didn’t really matter what happened on the field in Dodgertown, in the Spokane newspapers we were undefeated: Spokane wins 5-1 as Tommy Hutton drives in two runs. Billy Russell gets four hits in leading Spokane to an 8-2 victory. Spokane wins 1-0, a great pitchers’ battle.”

But one day, after Lasorda reported that the Indians had crushed the Albuquerque Dukes, the Dodgers’ Double-A club, the jig was up. Elten Schiller, who at the time was general manager of the Dodgers’ minor league affiliates, happened to be in Albuquerque and saw in their newspapers that the Dukes had won, contradicting Lasorda’s report to the Spokane newspapers that the Indians had won.

When Schiller discovered what was going on, “he told me that I had to start reporting the correct scores,” Lasorda said.

In Lasorda’s first year as manager, his team did not win the PCL title.

“The Spokane Indians finished second in 1969, a very disappointing second, although we set a league record by stealing 207 bases,” Lasorda said in his book. “But we couldn’t run if we didn’t get on base. My education as a manager was continuing. I had a different experience each day and I tried to learn something from each one. It became obvious to me that the most important part of a manager’s job is getting his team mentally and physically prepared to play, because once the game started there were a limited number of moves I could make. Any manager or coach naive enough to believe he’s responsible for winning a game is in serious trouble. I knew that if I didn’t show up one night my team still had an excellent chance of winning, but if I showed up the next night and the team didn’t, I had no chance of winning.”

Lasorda was determined to win the 1970 PCL crown with the Spokane Indians.

“The first day my squad got together in Vero Beach I told them we were going to win, and the way we were going to win was to pay the price,” Lasorda said.

Lasorda told the team “we’re gonna work like my wife shops, all day long.”

And that’s exactly what happened.

“We were on the field from early in the morning till late in the afternoon,” Lasorda said. “I’ve never had a team better prepared for a season than opening day, 1970. I had no doubt we were going to win the championship.”

The Indians opened the 1970 season in Salt Lake City on April 14. That same day Lasorda and his wife, Jo, celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary. Twelve days later Turbulator kicked off his marvelous 1970 campaign, which would be highlighted by a stakes victory on Aug. 16 in which he broke the 6 1/2-furlong world record by two-fifths of a second.

Turbulator is widely considered to be one of the best racehorses ever seen in the Pacific Northwest.

The Spokane Indians team of 1970 is widely considered to be one of the best minor league teams of all time. They won 94 games and lost 52.

“We won our divisional pennant by an incredible 26 games, then beat the Hawaii Islanders in four straight games for the league championship,” Lasorda recalled in his book.

Spokane outscored Hawaii 36-0 in that four-game sweep.

“We led the standings every day of the season,” Lasorda continued. “We had a team batting average of .299. What a team we had; more than half of them eventually played in the major leagues, including Bob Stinson, Tommy Hutton, Bobby Valentine, Steve Garvey, Tom Paciorek, Bill Russell, Davey Lopes, Bill Buckner, Sandy Vance, Doyle Alexander, Charlie Hough, Bobby O’Brien, Jerry Stephenson, Jose Pena, Von Joshua and Mike Strahler.”

Back then, I spent many nights listening to Spokane Indians baseball games on my transistor radio. Herb Hunter was the announcer. Even better, whenever the Dodgers played at night, I also listened to lots of their games. Those were magical evenings when hearing the iconic Vin Scully’s play-by-play emanating from the little transistor radio on my pillow. I was able to listen to those Dodger games because they were broadcast on Los Angeles radio station KFI-AM. That 50,000-watt station could be heard loud and clear at night in Spokane. I also listened to the fantastic Chick Hearn broadcast Laker games on another powerful 50,000-watt L.A. station, KNX. My idolization of Hearn was such that my nickname from seventh grade all the way through high school was Chick.

With Lasorda still at the helm, the Spokane Indians finished third in the Northern Division of the PCL in 1971. In 1972, Lasorda won another PCL title with Albuquerque, which that year had become the Dodgers’ Triple-A club instead of Spokane.

In 1973, Secretariat ended a 25-year Triple Crown drought. Before the start of the 1973 major league season, Lasorda was named third base coach of the Los Angeles Dodgers. And then, on Sept. 29, 1976, he was named manager of the Dodgers, replacing the retiring Walter Alston.


MEETING LASORDA AT DODGER STADIUM

While working as a writer for the Daily Racing Form in 1985, I stopped by the Laz Barrera barn at Hollywood Park on the morning of June 5. After asking Barrera about a number of his horses, I started to walk away when he said, “Are you doing anything tonight?”

“No, not really,” I said.

“Do you want to go to the Dodger game tonight?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said without hesitation.

And so it was that Barrera, his son Larry, a friend of Larry’s and yours truly were at Dodger Stadium that evening to see the Dodgers play the New York Mets. To make it even better, it was Fernando Valenzuela pitching for the Dodgers vs. Dwight Gooden for the Mets. For this baseball fan, it was pure heaven.

I took a copy of Lasorda’s book “The Artful Dodger” with me to the stadium that evening. Thanks to Laz Barrera, we all met with Lasorda in his office before the game. Not only did I show Lasorda that I had his new book, I told him that I grew up in Spokane and had seen him manage there.

“I enjoyed my time in Spokane,” Lasorda said, while signing the book. “And, man, that was some team we had there in 1970.”

This was how Lasorda signed the book:

to Jon -

You and the Dodgers are both great

Your friend,

Tom Lasorda

***

After Lasorda signed the book, he handed an autographed baseball to each of us.

“I’m sorry that not all players have signed these baseballs,” Lasorda said apologetically.

When we left his office to head for our seats, the first thing we all did was to see if Fernando Valenzuela had signed the ball. Unfortunately, his name was nowhere to be found.

Our seats were right behind the Dodgers’ dugout. And what a game we saw. Fernando and a 20-year-old Doc Gooden put on quite a show, a tremendous pitchers’ duel, with the score tied 1-1 going to the ninth inning. Ray Knight had hit a solo home run in the third inning for the Mets. Pedro Guerrero crushed an 0-2 fastball into the seats to tie the game in the sixth inning.

In the eighth inning, the Dodgers had Gooden on the ropes. The Dodgers loaded the bases with nobody out.

But then Gooden struck out the next three batters. And it took a total of only nine pitches to strike those three players out! The Dodgers who struck out in the eighth inning were Greg Brock, Mike Scioscia and Terry Whitfield.

All told, in a complete-game gem, Gooden had 12 strikeouts that evening.

The Mets scored four runs in the top of ninth inning to win the game 4-1.

Not surprisingly, Lasorda was not in a good mood after such a tough loss. According to the Los Angeles Times’ story on the game written by Gordon Edes, Lasorda did not take kindly to a question posed to him after the game by a member of the media.

“Dodger manager Tom Lasorda, a big believer in the squeeze bunt, erupted when someone asked him why he didn’t choose that option with Scioscia, a good bunter at the plate,” wrote Edes. “ ‘Gooden’s a tough man to squeeze on,’ Lasorda said, the decibel level rising. ‘You should know a little bit about the game. Learn about the game.’ ”

When I read that in the L.A. Times the next day, I could not help but picture the contrast between such a friendly Lasorda with four visitors in his office before the game and such an agitated Lasorda with the media after the game.

“What a kick Lasorda was,” retired Los Angeles Times sports editor Bill Dwyre wrote for that newspaper after Lasorda’s death. “For those of us in the newspaper business, he was the ultimate baseball character, a laugh-a-minute quote machine. Dodger beat writers in the Lasorda managerial days should have paid for the privilege instead of getting salaries. He often yelled at sportswriters about the various ink-stained transgressions and then, at the end of the tirade, gave them a wink and a grin. He loved sportswriters almost as much as he loved yelling at them. He never underestimated their value.”

In 1988, the underdog Dodgers won the National League’s Western Division, then upset the New York Mets and Oakland A’s in the playoffs to win the World Series for the second time under Lasorda. In the first game of the 1988 World Series, Kirk Gibson hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning off premier closer Dennis Eckersley to give the Dodgers an epic 5-4 victory.

My good friend Russell Hudak, who for many years made the morning line at Hollywood Park, Del Mar and Los Alamitos, phoned me to say that he had a ticket for me to attend Game 1 of the 1988 World Series with him. I was calling charts for the Daily Racing Form at the time. It killed me to say I couldn’t go to the game because I had to work. I did not think there was any possible way that I could leave Santa Anita after the races and get to the game on time via the crowded freeways. To this day I regret not finding some way to take that day off from work or at least leave work early so I could be at that game when Gibson hit his famous home run. And to this day I still have never been to a World Series game.

In Game 2, Orel Hershiser pitched a shutout to defeat the mighty A’s. The Dodgers won 6-0. Hershiser also was the winning pitcher in Game 5, which the Dodgers won 5-2.

In 1988, Hershiser received the Cy Young Award, the Championship Series MVP Award and World Series Award. He’s the only player to ever receive those three awards in the same season.

Also in 1988, Hershiser broke the record of 59 consecutive scoreless innings pitched that had been held by former Dodger Don Drysdale. Hershiser’s streak began on Aug. 30 and ended in the final game of the season on Sept. 28.

One day during Hershiser’s scoreless streak, it occurred to me that while Fernando Valenzuela’s signature was not on the baseball given to me by Lasorda in 1985, maybe Hershiser had signed it. Because that ball did not mean all that much to me at the time without Fernando’s signature on it, I had put it away and lost track of it. I spent an entire afternoon in 1988 looking for that baseball in order to see if Hershiser’s signature was on it. Finally, I did find it. And yes, Orel Hershiser’s signature is on it.

All these years later that particular baseball does now mean a lot to me, not only because Hershiser’s signature is on it, but also because it was given to me by none other than Thomas Charles Lasorda.

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