California Chrome is the slight favorite to win the inaugural running of the $12 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream Park on Saturday.
But the nation’s reigning champion will have his work cut out.
Not only must the 2014 winner of the Kentucky Derby contend with Arrogate, the horse who beat him in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in November, but he must overcome a disadvantageous starting post for the 1 1/8-mile stakes — the richest race in thoroughbred history.
Groans went out at Monday’s post position draw when California Chrome landed outside Post 12. With a very short run to the first turn, Chrome and jockey Victor Espinosa could be parked outside, costing them precious ground.
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Only 2 percent of all horses who have started from post 12 in 1 1/8-mile races over the years at Gulfstream have managed to win, though one of those was Big Brown when he won the 2008 Florida Derby.
“I was hoping we might get closer inside,” said Art Sherman, Chrome’s 79-year-old trainer. “But if the horse is good enough, he’s going to perform. And he’s good enough, believe me when I tell you that.”
Despite the poor post assignment, California Chrome was made the 6-5 favorite to turn the tables on Arrogate (7-5) and win their long-awaited rematch. The other 10 horses are being given little chance in the clash of the two titans, with Keen Ice listed as the 12-1 third choice.
The other nine horses are 20-1 or higher.
While California Chrome’s chances were compromised by his unlucky post draw, Arrogate didn’t exactly land in a sweet spot, either. Arrogate drew the rail — Post No. 1.
That means the two horses everyone will be watching Saturday will be at extreme opposite ends of the starting gate, sandwiching the rest of the field.
“The only good thing about this, he won’t have to be in the starting gate long,” Sherman said of California Chrome, who will be the last horse to load.
The Pegasus will be the final race of California Chrome’s spectacular career, one in which he has already earned $14.5 million and would become the richest horse in North American thoroughbred racing history with a win Saturday. The winner’s share for the Pegasus is $7 million.
At Saturday’s Eclipse Award ceremonies, California Chrome was named “Horse of the Year” for 2016, the second time the 6-year-old captured racing’s top award.
But he will likely face a stern test from Arrogate, who bested him by half-length in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Nov. 15.
Even though he didn’t take part in any of last year’s Triple Crown races, Arrogate was named the nation’s 3-year-old of the year, romping to a 13-length win in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga before running down California Chrome in the Classic.
The two horses tower over the rest of the Pegasus field, at least on paper.
Keen Ice — the third choice — has already pulled off one stunning upset, defeating Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers Stakes. But he hasn’t triumphed since, going winless in each of his past eight races.
No, most eyes — and gambling dollars — will be on California Chrome and Arrogate in what shapes up as the most anticipated two-horse showdown at Gulfstream since the Sunday Silence/Easy Goer Breeders’ Cup Classic in 1989.
“It’s more for the public, who’s the best horse,” Sherman said. “You have a rematch, the Horse of the Year and the 3-year-old of the year. Two great horses.”
Pegasus World Cup Invitational
The field for Saturday’s $12 million race at Gulfstream Park:
Pole Position, Horse
2. Prayer for Relief
4. Noble Bird
5. War Story
6. War Envoy
7. Shaman Ghost
8. Semper Fortis
9. Keen Ice
10. Breaking Lucky
12. California Chrome
Distance: 1 1/8 miles; TV: NBC Sports Network (4:30-6 p.m.); Winner’s share: $7 million; About: The Pegasus will be the 12th race on a 12-race card that has a first-race post of 11:30 a.m.