Timeform's Mark Milligan previews the second running of $16m Pegasus World Cup, held at Gulfstrem Park on Saturday...
"...a big improver in 2017, winning the Travers Stakes at Saratoga before dominating the Pennsylvania Derby at Parx..."
The second running of the $16m Pegasus World Cup takes place at Gulfstream Park on Saturday (22:35 GMT), with North America's newly-crowned Horse of the Year Gun Runner heading the betting. While Gun Runner may have been shunned in favour of Arrogate by international handicappers when the Longines World's Best Racehorse rankings were unveiled, he suffered no such ignominy at the Eclipse Awards on Thursday evening, receiving 247 votes compared to just 2 for Arrogate. The Pegasus is scheduled to be Gun Runner's final start before heading to stud, and promises to be one of the biggest tests he has faced in his storied career.
Unbeaten in four starts since finishing runner-up to Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup, Gun Runner proved a model of consistency in 2017, rounding off the year by defeating four of this field in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Del Mar. Travelling with all his typical power, Gun Runner came home just over two lengths clear of Collected, with West Coast a little over a length further back in third. War Story and Gunnevera finished fourth and fifth. Clearly the one to beat again, Gun Runner has been done no favours with a wide draw - although data for the nine-furlong distance at Gulfstream is limited - and given all the speed to his inside, it's difficult to see how he isn't at least three-wide on the first turn.
Bob Baffert's aforementioned duo Collected and West Coast will try to turn the Breeders' Cup tables on Gun Runner, and both have been drawn more favourably than Steve Asmussen's charge. Collected disappointed on his most recent start, finishing third in a Grade 2 at Santa Anita on Boxing Day. Unable to dominate in that contest, Mike Smith will be looking to have Collected more forwardly placed here. West Coast was a big improver in 2017, winning the Travers Stakes at Saratoga before dominating the Pennsylvania Derby at Parx. He maybe found the Classic coming a little too soon at that stage of his development, just unable to match Gun Runner and his older stable companion, but still ran a good race in third. West Coast is open to plenty of improvement in 2018 and may well show it on Saturday.
Speedy miler Sharp Azteca posted a career-best effort in winning the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct on his latest start, tracking the pace before stretching away in good style, proving strong at the finish. The way he rounded off that race suggests the extra furlong of the Pegasus will be well within his compass, and he has a good post position to utilise his natural speed. The key to Sharp Azteca's chance is whether he is allowed to relax in front, a situation that may be unlikely given the number of forward-going types in the line-up.
While there is intrigue aplenty among the home contingent, there is an even more interesting sub-plot to the race in the shape of British raider Toast Of New York. Not seen since finishing a gallant second in the 2014 Breeders' Cup Classic, Jamie Osborne's seven-year-old returned from an aborted stud career to regain winning ways in a minor contest at Lingfield in December. While the form of that race is worth little in the context of this event, he is expected to come on plenty for that run, and his ability to handle dirt is not in question. What is in question, however, is just how much ability remains, and whether he can mix it with the best the US has to offer having been away from top-level competition for so long. Realistically, he faces a very tough task.
It is hard to see too many of the others figuring in the finish, the most likely to challenge those at the head of the market being Breeders' Cup Distaff winner Stellar Wind. Trained to win that race by John Sadler, Stellar Wind was subsequently sold for $6m and transferred to Chad Brown. For all that he is one of North America's foremost trainers, Brown faces a tough task in trying to claim the scalps of the males with this admirable mare.
In summary, the tactical nature of this contest makes for a tricky scenario, Gun Runner highly likely to be hung wide on the first turn given all the speed inside him. With the prospect of things not panning out ideally, he is opposed, albeit not lightly, at odds-on. The solid option looks to be an each-way play on West Coast, who is the most likely improver in the field, and should get a good trip from his favourable draw.