Jockey Florent Geroux was winning the world’s richest horse race on Saturday, and his tears of fresh joy and of raw sorrow were mixed together as his champion Gun Runner flew first to the finish line at Gulfstream Park.
The stars of this sport run on four legs, but the stories don’t get much more human than what played out in the second annual Pegasus World Cup Invitational.
Geroux was bidding goodbye in the final career race for his “horse of a lifetime,” the 2017 Breeders Cup Classic winner named Horse of the Year at Thursday’s Eclipse Awards. He was riding one day after the Frenchman earned his U.S. citizenship. And he was riding the race for the man who wasn’t there, his father and biggest fan, Dominique, who died Dec. 29 from head injuries suffered in a Christmas Eve fall in France.
“Je t’aime Papa” (I love you Dad), Geroux had Tweeted in sharing the news.
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“He was going to fly here last week from France and stay with me,” said the jockey friends call Flo. “We were going to fly [to the Pegasus] together. We miss him, and hopefully he was watching us and rooting for us.”
Thoroughbred horse racing is struggling elsewhere -- some might even say dying across America -- but not here, no. Not at Gulfstream, which stands as an anomaly in this sport as unmistakably as that 110-foot statue of Pegasus, the mythical winged horse, stands outside the Hallandale Beach track greeting visitors.
“We can’t move that [statue] so we can’t move the race,” kidded Gulfstream chairman and president Belinda Stronach, confirming the Pegasus would return for a third year.
The Florida Derby might still be Gulfstream’s annual jewel as a Triple Crown-season prep race and in terms of tradition, but nothing, anywhere, tops the Pegasus World Cup’s $16 million purse including the $7 million top prize Gun Runner earned for his owners Saturday in his last race before retiring to stud.
Seven million bucks for 1 minute and 47.42 seconds’ work. Top that, two-legged Tom Brady and LeBron James. This 5-year-old chestnut stallion had better get one heck of a retirement party.
“A fairy tale ending to a beautiful story,” trainer Steve Asmussen called it.
Said Geroux of the race: “This feeling is hard to describe. In only one word, the horse was unbeatable.”
Geroux’s beloved horse’s career swansong, the jockey’s newly minted citizenship, the record-breaking purse he was after -- all took a backseat to the overriding emotion of knowing who wasn’t there cheering.
“Flo isn’t overly superstitious, but he always wanted his Dad here for the really big races,” said his wife Kasey. “He couldn’t imagine him not being here.”
Gun Runner fronted one of the great fields in thoroughbred history, including all top five finishers from November’s Breeders Cup Classic. Triple Crown races continue to top the sport’s marquee with casual or occasional race fans but cannot equal the Pegasus in terms of quality and purse. For example, Saturday’s record $16 million purse was more than triple the combined purses for the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
Everything is giant-scale at the Pegasus, including the $1 million buy-in for competing horses and the $75 admission patrons had to spend just to get into the track. NBC televised it live. Kourtney Kardashian and David Beckham were among celebrities drawn to the glamour race.
The Pegasus is the brainchild of Frank Stronach and the Stronach Group, which owns Gulfstream, and it has become a powerhouse event in the sport in only two years -- and a huge annual piece of the richly diverse South Florida sports landscape. The Pegasus also is a huge reason why almost 20 percent of racing bets placed in the United States in the past year were based on racing at Gulfstream, the thoroughbred mecca that flourishes while so many others flounder.
“From time to time you gotta come up with crazy ideas,” said Stronach of the Pegasus. “We have to make horse racing more exciting and bring in more young people.”
Like many tracks Gulfstream prudently sold some of its equine soul to share its stage with a casino, yes, but the Pegasus reminds that horse racing remains the track’s heartbeat.
And the heart of this one belonged to the winning jockey Florent Geroux.
It was a heart broken, and soaring, all at once.