Gun Runner’s finale more than cash grab

Horse Racing

First, a pop quiz:

How much is the Arc de Triomphe worth? What does the winner of the Epsom Derby take home? What is the name of the richest race in Australia? And who said, “When somebody says it’s not about the money, it’s about the money”?

The Pegasus World Cup, which is all about the money, will be run for the second time Saturday afternoon at Gulfstream Park, where its owner, The Stronach Group, has pulled out the promotional stops to dress up a nine-furlong race in January far beyond its station.

The investment is considerable, and must be worth it, or else why would so much effort be put into a nine-furlong race in January? The Stronach Group alone will ante up about $8 million in purse money, and Frank Stronach would have to win the dang thing with his longest of longshots Singing Bullet to even come close to breaking even. Or would he?

Extra credit: What does the winner earn for winning the Pegasus World Cup?

It depends. If an owner or ownership group bought one of the $1 million starting berths and wins with their own horse, the prize is a cool $7 million. If someone bought a berth then sold it to someone else, they’ve already collected. If someone bought a berth and leased out or sold a share in their own horse to spread the risk, or leased or purchased another horse to fill the berth, the distribution of the winning purse would depend on the terms of any private arrangement (terms not disclosed).

Further, if you are the owner of a horse invited to fill one of the unsold berths and happen to win the race, you would first pay back The Stronach Group $1 million for the use of the berth, then split the remaining $6 million and take home half, while the other $3 million is divided evenly among the nine original berth purchasers, one of whom was Stronach, although the Stronach Stables berth will be filled by Fear the Cowboy and run for a partnership that includes Stronach (terms not disclosed), while Stronach himself is running Singing Bullet as one of those invited. Also, too, if none of the three invited runners finish 1-2-3, it’s a wash. They get nothing, and they owe nothing, which means the total purse distribution would be $13.3 million.

Excuse me while I now do my long form 1040. After all that, it’ll be a snap.

The point being, a race that is all about the money pushes the real stars to the margins. And that’s a shame. In its only two runnings, the Pegasus World Cup has attracted the three best older horses in training: Arrogate and California Chrome last year and now Gun Runner, who will carry the mantle of 2017 Horse of the Year into battle. If one of the goals of the race was to keep such stars in training, mission accomplished, even though California Chrome was making his final start and Gun Runner will be doing likewise this year.

In dramatic terms, though, at least as far as the sport in North America is concerned, the Pegasus violates the rules of good theater. You don’t put all your eggs in Act I if you want II and III to have any impact. To stage the richest race in the hemisphere — nay, the world — before the frost is off the ivy clinging to the façade of Belmont Park runs contrary to the rhythms of a racing season that have worked just fine since the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Washington, D.C. International summed up the year with a bang. By contrast, the Pegasus is a stand-alone event serving as nothing more than a richer, shorter rematch of the previous year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. If Collected and West Coast, second and third in the 2017 Classic, have caught up with victorious Gun Runner, then Saturday’s race should be a rematch to remember and could have been assembled for half the money. But then, it wouldn’t be about the money.

There is a reason, however, that Gun Runner is a daunting 4-5 on the morning line. As a 5-year-old stallion, there is every indication he has matured into the kind of horse who might have rewritten certain chapters of the history books. Consider the fully equipped, 5-year-old males of the past and how they soared — Ack Ack, Black Tie Affair, Cigar, Skip Away, Saint Liam, and, in one fleeting tease of a race, Ghostzapper.

As recently as last November, doubts swirled around Gun Runner’s ability to answer the demands of a mile and a quarter in top company. He was touted as a superb nine-furlong horse who whipped up on his inferiors at Saratoga, for what that was worth. So much for that.

In a perfect world, Gun Runner would be competing again this season. Instead, come November, his performance in the Pegasus is in danger of fading from view, to be replaced by flavors yet to come. That is why it is important for him to uncork something special on Saturday, something to be remembered beyond the zeroes on the check. Gun Runner can turn a race that’s all about the money into a showcase for the artistic manifestation of all that money can buy.

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