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Old 01-26-2018, 08:41 PM   #1
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in defense of the Pegasus- what it's REALLY about

Jay Hovdey, for the second year in a row, has published a screed against his least favorite race, the Pegasus, in the Racing Form. It's behind a paywall, but you have heard all the arguments-- it's only a mile and an eighth, the purse is phony and needlessly complicated, it's not a true world championship as billed because it is run at the start of the racing season, etc.

All of those arguments (plus cj's arguments here about timing and runup) are very legitimate. But they also kind of miss the point.

And I don't just mean the point of "this race has now drawn 2 very good fields in 2 years", although we do know that. I mean something else as well.

To really understand why the Pegasus exists, and why it is a good thing, you need to understand that something really damaging has happened to American racing over the past 22 years.

This country used to basically have a monopoly on good dirt racing. There were some dirt tracks in South America, but the purses were much lower and the quality of competition much weaker. And there were some equitracks, which later became polytracks, scattered throughout the world, but those weren't real dirt and most of them also featured weaker racing than in the US.

In 1996, Dubai, flush with tons of oil money, shattered the monopoly. They created a dirt race worth $5 million. And immediately drew the best dirt horse in the world, Cigar, to run in it. And almost immediately, they became a MAJOR player, with horses shipping over every year and taking several months off from American racetracks to do it. The Dubai World Cup decimated the dirt handicap division, traditionally the strongest division in American racing.

Notably, Dubai has tried to do this in other sports too. But they haven't succeeded-- their tennis and golf tournaments are good, for instance, but they haven't displaced the majors. In horse racing, though, they completely succeeded.

And no race has been hurt more by this than the Santa Anita Handicap, the flagship race at Frank Stronach's flagship track.

The Santa Anita Handicap was itself the Dubai World Cup of the 1930's. It came around at a time when the eastern tracks had a monopoly on good dirt racing and controlled the handicap division. California, like Dubai in the 1990's, was just starting out (we legalized parimutuel betting in 1933, and Santa Anita opened on Christmas Day 1934). It offered an enormous purse, $100,000, which was something like four times the purse of the major handicap races in the East. And it drew all the eastern stars-- Equipoise, Twenty Grand, and Head Play ran in the inaugural running.

The Santa Anita Handicap even had its own Cigar which gave the race legitimacy-- Seabiscuit, who lost photo finishes (itself a new technology) in 1937 and 1938, was injured while his stablemate won in 1939, and then won the thing in 1940 in the last race of his career. Soon, everyone in American racing wanted to win the Santa Anita Handicap. Whirlaway was actually in training out here in December 1941 coming off his triple crown year, when Pearl Harbor was bombed and Santa Anita closed for the war. After the war, Calumet sent Derby winners Citation and Ponder out here to try to win the race, and for years, the Big Cap was the strongest race of the winter. A laundry list of Hall of Famers, from Round Table to Ack Ack to Affirmed to Spectacular Bid to John Henry to Alysheba, won the race.

The Santa Anita Handicap has been destroyed by Dubai. Since 1996, almost every year, horses who would have run in the Santa Anita Handicap have run in Dubai instead. The Pacific Classic, first run in the 1990's at Del Mar, has become the strongest handicap division race on the west coast. In the last couple of decades, only one Santa Anita Handicap has really lived up to the great races of the past-- 2014, where three top horses, for various reasons, were not shipped to Dubai, and we got a great race, won by Game on Dude over the winner and runner-up of the previous year's Breeders' Cup Classic in 1:58 flat, the second fastest 1 1/4 miles on dirt in racing history.

But we are unlikely to see another 2014 Big Cap again (or if we do, it won't happen for another 20 years or so).

Frank Stronach knows this. When he bought Santa Anita, the Big Cap was still a big deal. It produced either the biggest, second biggest, or third biggest live crowd of every season. It always drew 20,000 and sometimes drew 30,000. And it was still drawing some good horses. He has presided over the destruction of the Big Cap. And it was Dubai that killed it.

So what did Stronach do? I really, really, cannot express how much I love what he did. He created a race that used a complicated purse structure to reclaim the label "richest race in the world" from Dubai. And he put it earlier in the year so that he can get horses retiring to stud to run in his race, whereas they won't stick around and run in Dubai. He has created a bigger, better race than the Dubai World Cup, and holds it at one of his tracks. Here in America.

American racing needed this. We couldn't afford to have a middle eastern oil-rich sheikhdom steal the title of "biggest dirt race of the year". We needed to fight back. And for Stronach, it was also personal-- he needed to stand up to the people who ruined his big winter race.

He did just that.

Embrace the Pegasus. Despite the run-up, despite the distance, despite the timing problems, despite the dishonesty about the purse. Embrace it. It's great for American racing.
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