Native Dancer: The Nearly Perfect Grey Ghost of Sagamore
Trainer Brad Cox needed just one word to succinctly express what he witnessed in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes.
“Greatness,” he said.
In a young race that has enjoyed its fair share of great moments thanks to horses like Arrogate and Gun Runner, a 5-year-old with humble Maryland roots added his name to that sparkling list when the Korea Racing Authority’s Knicks Go rolled to a dazzling, front-running 2 3/4-length victory Jan. 23 in the fifth edition of the Pegasus at Gulfstream Park that left Cox gushing with pride.
“Great horses do great things and he did something great today,” Cox said. “I’m very proud of him.”
Cox’s pride is understandable considering how Knicks Go has morphed from a horse who couldn’t win to one who can’t lose since he moved into Cox’s barn last year.
A Grade 1 winner at 2 for trainer Ben Colebrook, the son of Paynter was 0-for-8 as a 3-year-old but he’s now 4-for-4 for Cox with Big Ass Fans Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile and Pegasus victories in his last two starts that have placed him at the center of a remarkable renaissance tale.
“We’ve had some horses we’ve claimed who have won stakes, but I haven’t seen anything like this,” Cox said. “I wish I could say why it happened but I don’t know what was happening before. He was great at 2 and looked like a good horse when we got him.”
Now the fourth Breeders’ Cup winner to emerge victorious in the Pegasus, Knicks Go still has some running ahead of him, according to Jun Park, a representative of the KRA.
“It was an outstanding performance. We appreciate everything the [Brad Cox] team did with him. Everybody did a great job with him,” Park said. “We are honored to be here and he will continue to race.”
The next target could the $20 million Saudi Cup, a 1 1/8-mile Feb. 20 at King Abdulaziz Racetrack in Riyadh.
While Knicks Go received an automatic spot in the field for the world’s richest race through Saturday’s win, Cox knows a lot will have to go right between now and then to set up an international showdown with the Bob Baffert-trained Charlatan in the Saudi Cup.
“We’ll look at it,” Cox said. “It’s a lot to ask but we’ll let him tell us. I’d say it’s a 50-50 situation.”
Another option could be the $12 million Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline, a March 27 test at 1 1/4 miles. While Saturday marked Knicks Go’s first start beyond 1 1/16 miles, Cox believes the son of the Outflanker mare Kosmo’s Buddy has the breeding to stretch his speed over a 10-furlong distance.
“He can go farther,” Cox said. “With Paynter and Awesome Again [the sire of Paynter], it’s a mile-and-a-quarter pedigree. I actually think the mile-and-a-quarter around two turns is better for him than a mile-and-an-eighth around one turn. He excels on turns.”
Knicks Go excelled from start-to-finish Saturday as he led throughout in the no raceday Lasix stakes and turned aside a bid from Grupo 7C Racing Stable’s Jesus’ Team to underscore the strength of the Dirt Mile. About 2 1/2 months ago, Knicks Go and Jesus' Team finished 1-2 at the World Championships, with Knicks Go prevailing by 3 1/2 lengths.
Jockey Joel Rosario took Knicks Go right to the lead when the field of 12 broke from the gate in the Pegasus and they were ahead by 1 1/2 lengths over 41-1 shot Last Judgment after a half-mile in :46.16.
Right behind were WinStar Farm, Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, Twin Creeks Racing Stables, and RKV Racing’s Independence Hall and Tax, the 5-1 third choice.
As Knicks Go continued to motor along through six furlongs in 1:09.91, Last Judgment and Tax dropped back and Jesus’ Team moved up from fifth to join Independence Hall and mount the lone serious rally from the back of the pack.
Not that it mattered in deciding the outcome.
Rosario had Knicks Go in front by a comfortable three lengths at the eighth pole and covered the 1 1/8-mile distance in 1:47.89.
“He just goes faster and faster,” Rosario said. “What a training job by Brad Cox. Thank you to Racing Authority for the opportunity and to Brad for letting me ride him. He’s very special. You can see, he goes faster, like I said, faster and faster.”
Jesus’ Team, a 4-year-old son of Tapiture, was second under Irad Ortiz Jr. at 11-1 odds by a neck over Independence Hall, a Constitution 4-year-old trained by Michael McCarthy who was dismissed at 27-1.
“I am very proud of Jesus, he’s a great horse. Today, he didn’t have the luck to win, because Knicks Go ran again alone in front,” trainer Jose D’Angelo said about Jesus’ Team. “I am very sure that Jesus will be on top in big races. I feel proud of him.”
It was another 6 1/4 lengths back to Sleepy Eyes Todd, who was three-quarters-of-a-length ahead of Will Farish’s multiple grade 1 winner Code of Honor, the 4-1 second choice, who broke from post 10 and failed to generate his typically strong stretch run.
For Knicks Go, it was his sixth win in 18 starts and lifted his career earnings to $3,088,995.
Knicks Go was bought by the KRA for $87,000 from the Woods Edge Farm consignment at the 2017 Keeneland September yearling sale, and, speaking of breeding, the only puzzling element for Cox about Saturday’s win involved how such an accomplished horse has yet to be locked up by a stud farm.
“I can’t believe no one has made a stallion deal for him yet,” Cox said. “He was a grade 1 winner at 2, a grade one winner at 4 and 5 as an older horse. A Breeders’ Cup and Pegasus winner. A grade 1 winner around two turns without Lasix. What do people want?”
If the phone doesn’t ring after the Pegasus, it surely be a “great” mystery.
Colonel Liam Edges Largent in Pegasus World Cup Turf
When $1 million is on the line, Colonel Liam finds his way into the spotlight.
He first did so in April 2019 when he lit up the sales ring at Ocala Breeders’ Sales, bought for $1.2 million during the OBS Spring Sale of 2-Year-Olds in Training. Then he commanded attention again Jan. 23 at Gulfstream Park by winning in the $981,700 Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational Stakes.
In taking the Pegasus Turf, the Todd Pletcher-trained son of Liam’s Map shed traffic on the second turn, and accelerated down the stretch to edge stablemate Largent by a neck in an exciting renewal of the 1 3/16-mile contest. He earned $549,000 for owners Robert and Lawana Low and the prestige of the race likely assures him an eventual career at stud.
Trainer Todd Pletcher had his fingerprints all over Saturday’s result, not only with a 1-2 finish but having also trained Liam’s Map, winner of the Woodward Stakes and the Las Vegas Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile in 2015.
Although Liam’s Map achieved his success on dirt, it wasn’t until Colonel Liam shifted to turf last summer that he began to realize his potential. Following two modest efforts in dirt races, he debuted on grass at Saratoga Race Course in July and immediately won an allowance by 2 3/4 lengths—leading his connections to pursue stakes with him. He next ran a troubled fourth in the $500,000 Saratoga Derby Invitational Stakes last August and returned to take the Tropical Park Derby Dec. 26 at Gulfstream.
Though he lacked any graded stakes experience heading into the Pegasus World Cup Turf, the betting public accurately pegged him as the 5-2 favorite. After sitting in midpack for the first mile under jockey Irad Ortiz Jr., as 2019 juvenile champion Storm the Court set the pace with fractions of :48.69 and 1:12.85, Colonel Liam justified his backing with his late kick. Angled out into the center of the course, he outkicked the inside-rallying Largent, winner of last month’s Ft. Lauderdale Stakes (G2T) at Gulfstream.
The winner raced 1 3/16 miles on firm turf in 1:53.09, paying $7.—Byron King