Handicappers will be presented with an interesting quandary when the $16 million Pegasus World Cup (gr. I) is held on January 27th at Gulfstream Park.
The nine-furlong race will mark the final start for #10 Gun Runner, who rose to great heights during a 5-for-6 campaign in 2017 that saw him win four straight Grade 1 races in eye-catching fashion, including the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) at Santa Anita Park. With BRIS speed figures of 107, 107, 107, 114, and 113 in his five U.S. starts last year, he stands out as the fastest and most consistent horse in the Pegasus World Cup field.
The only problem is that Gun Runner’s win streak has earned him a reputation that will make him an overwhelming favorite on Saturday. Many fans and handicappers have already conceded the race to Gun Runner, but I’m hesitant to call him unbeatable at a short price. For one, he’s drawn post position ten with a very short run to the first turn, and outside post positions don’t have a very good record in nine-furlong races at Gulfstream Park. Unless he breaks perfectly and aggressively sprints for the early lead, Gun Runner could be set for a very wide trip in the Pegasus World Cup.
But perhaps more importantly, Gun Runner—while certainly the horse to beat—has not necessarily proven that he is overwhelmingly superior to the horses he’ll face in the Pegasus World Cup. He deserves a lot of credit for winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic in gate-to-wire fashion while setting a fast pace, but he was hard-urged to put away the pace-tracking Collected and ran the final quarter-mile in :26.26 seconds to win by just 2 ¼ lengths.
Gun Runner has seemingly trained as well as ever in preparation for the Pegasus World Cup, but it’s fair to wonder how much his long 2017 season and his hard effort in the Breeders’ Cup might have taken out of him. Throw in the possibility of a wide trip, and I’m tempted to play against Gun Runner on Saturday.
Instead, I’ll take a shot with a horse that might have more room for improvement—the up-and-coming #2 West Coast. Trained by Bob Baffert, who won the inaugural Pegasus World Cup with Arrogate, West Coast showed promise early in 2017 but really improved during the second half of the year, rattling off eye-catching and decisive victories in the Los Alamitos Derby (gr. III), Travers Stakes (gr. I), and Pennsylvania Derby (gr. I). In the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he was put in tight quarters early on and didn’t seem to settle as well as he might have while tracking the pace in third place, but he stayed on gamely in the homestretch to finish third despite a wide trip that saw him lose a considerable amount of ground.
Drawing post position two could be a meaningful advantage for West Coast, who will have a chance to work out a ground-saving trip. If he takes another step forward in his four-year-old debut, I think he can turn the tables on Gun Runner.
The speedy miler #4 Sharp Azteca, #5 Collected, and the two-time Gulfstream Park stakes winner #6 Gunnevera are others that I will consider playing.