On Saturday, the racing community will be focused on Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla., the site of the second Pegasus World Cup, just as it was at this time last year. With a listed purse of $16 million, the Pegasus is again being advertised as the richest race in the world, it has drawn a field that is deep and bet-ready, and tickets for the day are being priced as if the Belmont Stakes was an undercard event on the Saturday Breeders' Cup lineup.
And, just like last year on the eve of the race, there are lingering questions about whether the Pegasus has a long-term run ahead of it.
While the company that administers the race, The Stronach Group, was able to fill all 12 berths in the race, it did so only after hustling horses for the last three spots by giving the berths away. And it did that only after putting up $4 million to boost the purse and increasing the guaranteed minimum payout to every runner in the race from $250,000 to $650,000, tweaks that dramatically lowered the risk to owners who put up $1 million to buy a starting berth.
The modifications this year were intended to shore up weaknesses that The Stronach Group identified last year after the first running of the race, which required owners to put up $1 million each for the right to start a horse in the race, with all the funds going into a $12 million purse. Last year, the novelty of the structure enticed 12 buyers to pony up $1 million almost immediately after the slots went on sale. But following the race, after many slot owners lost hundreds of thousands of dollars, The Stronach Group realized it would have to minimize the risk to future slot owners to get a full field for the second running.
That led to the new $650,000 minimum and the $4 million company-funded boost to the purse. However, it wasn't enough. Nearly every slot owner in last year's Pegasus passed on a chance to buy a slot this year, despite having first preference, and several mid-summer deadlines passed without a substantial number of owners expressing interest in a slot. The Stronach Group eventually set a firm Dec. 15 deadline to commit to a berth.
Despite the late deadline, demand for this year's Pegasus did not reach beyond nine slots, not a surprise given that the top handicap horses in the country - Gun Runner, West Coast, and Collected - bought their own slots. As a result, owners of horses that didn't quite make the top-class cut decided to wait it out, knowing that for the first year's running, slot owners practically gave away their berths to owners of competitive horses just so they had a horse in the starting gate. There was no reason to believe that same dynamic wouldn't play out this year.
But there was a twist this year: Because there weren't 12 buyers, The Stronach Group had to purchase the three remaining slots to make the race go. The only problem with that decision was that the company had no plan for what to do with the slots when it bought them.
Following discussions with the other slot owners, officials for the company jury-rigged a solution: The Stronach Group would pick the final three horses for the field to fill the three slots, at no cost to the owners of the horses, but the company would retain the first $1 million of any earnings from the horses, with the remainder split down the middle. One half of that remainder would go to the owners of the horse, and the other half would be split by the nine original slot owners, a structure that could result in the last-place horse in the race earning nearly $1 million.
And that's how the second Pegasus field got put together, slightly more chaotically than the first time. It's anyone's guess how The Stronach Group will make a third edition go, but it's already proven it's not afraid to experiment.