The mood was light and the spirit even lighter as horses and riders waited to the enter the gate for the $2,940,000 Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes presented by Runhappy Jan. 25 at Gulfstream Park.
Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano stood on the sideline dressed in a sharp suit having lost his mount when Pegasus hopeful Spun to Run scratched two days before the race. Castellano called out to his fellow jockeys as they waited to load, heckling them with jibes and jokes that drew smiles from all.
Dressed in the silks of Prince Faisal Bin Khaled astride Mucho Gusto, Irad Ortiz Jr. waved and laughed at Castellano. Less than two minutes later the two-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey blew past the crowd with astounding ease as he and Mucho Gusto claimed the fourth running of the Pegasus World Cup by 4 1/2 lengths.
“Those are the most exciting ones, when you don’t expect it,” said trainer Bob Baffert via phone after the race. “He just showed up. We’ve always wanted to see him run a race like that, but he got beat by Maximum Security and he’s been chasing some really good horses. It was a different field today.”
Leaving from post-position eight in the 10-horse field, Ortiz Jr. and Mucho Gusto broke on top before the veteran jockey shifted his mount sharply to the rail to occupy third behind Mr Freeze and Bodexpress, respectively. Mr Freeze looked confident despite being crowded by Bodexpress after the break and set the pace for the field, clicking off easy fractions of :23.77 and :47.78 through the half-mile.
Mucho Gusto dropped back to fourth briefly at the half-mile mark and swung out under Ortiz three wide. Favored Higher Power moved in to take over the open position left by Mucho Gusto but soon found himself blocked and began to drift back.
Within striking range of Mr Freeze and Bodexpress, Mucho Gusto found another gear and surged forward to overtake first Bodexpress and then Mr Freeze. At the top of the stretch, Mucho Gusto held sway over the field by 2 1/2 lengths and only increased his lead from there. His competition well behind and the finish line in sight, the pair blew past the wire with a triumphant flourish, completing the 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.85 one a track rated fast.
“I had a great trip,” said Ortiz Jr, the inaugural Fan Choice Awards Best Jockey of 2019. “He got a great start an felt good. He relaxed so well and we were able to save ground. At the three-eighths pole, I tipped him out and he took off. He was much the best. I think he just took off and opened up easy. He’s a nice horse.”
The hard-running Mr Freeze never wavered and held for second to the delight of trainer Dale Romans.
“That was the plan [to go to the front]. He didn’t break as clean as I would have liked but he got there and he had a good pace and ran a good race,” Romans said. “He was training as good as a horse can train and he ran huge. I thought he ran a beautiful race. We’ve had confidence in him and he ran the way we thought he would.”
“He never gave up,” said Mr Freeze’s jockey Luis Saez. “He was brave. He was trying very hard; I thought we were going to win for a second. He never gave up. He missed the break a little but then when he saw the clear he went pretty nice. I felt like he was very comfortable.”
War Story, who broke slowly from the gate, made a late rally to take third. Diamond Oops saved ground in the backstretch and had enough in reserve to overtake Bodexpress for fourth.
Mucho Gusto paid $8.80, $5, and $3.80 for a $2 wager.
Bred in Kentucky by Teneri Farm and Bernardo Alvarez Calderon, Mucho Gusto is the third foal out of the Giant’s Causeway mare Itsagiantcauseway. He won three graded stakes in 2019 and finished second in the TVG.com Haskell Invitational Stakes and third in the Runhappy Travers Stakes. He had not raced since running fourth in the Oklahoma Derby on Sept. 29.
“He has just been training so well,” said Baffert’s assistant Jimmy Barnes. “After that freshening he really seemed to grow and get back to the way he was when we first got him. Did I think he was going to crush them like that? No. That was impressive.”
Mucho Gusto’s win in the Pegasus boosted his earnings made him a multi-millionaire earner of $2,579,800. He boasts a 6-2-2 record from 11 starts.
Zulu Alpha Springs Upset in Pegasus World Cup Turf
Former claimer Zulu Alpha turned back world traveler Magic Wand Jan. 25 with a rail-skimming run to victory in the $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational presented by Runhappy at Gulfstream Park.
It looked as though the European invader would preserve her lead all the way home, but Zulu Alpha kicked into another gear under urging mid-stretch and sprinted to secure a two-length win at odds of 11.80-1.—Claire Crosby