At Pegasus World Cup, harness horsemen wonder: why not us?

by Bill Finley

It was several races before Arrogate would win the $12 million Pegasus World Cup, but harness owner Mac Nichol was already soaking in what was an incredible scene Saturday afternoon at Gulfstream Park. Though a small facility, Gulfstream was packed, people willing to pay a minimum of $100 just to get in the building, and the electricity was palpable. This was a totally new concept, 12 stakeholders putting up $1 million each to secure a starting spot in the richest horse race ever run. And that $12 million drew the two glamour horses in thoroughbred racing in Arrogate and California Chrome for a rematch of the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Nichol didn’t have a horse in the Pegasus World Cup, but he was the co-owner of Madefromlucky, who would finish third in the $400,000 Poseidon Stakes. He knows both games and like many harness horsemen he wonders why the standardbred business is so stuck in its ways, a status quo that, frankly, isn’t really working.

“This is just unbelievable, what’s going on here today,” he said. “There’s a super turnout. The crowd is amazing and everyone is super-charged.”

Could harness racing even so much of dream of having a day like this?

“They may dream about it, but it won’t happen because they don’t do anything,” Nichol answered. “When you compare standardbreds to thoroughbreds it’s whole different world because they promote it so much more in order to get people to come to the track.”

And that’s the problem. In harness racing, who is thinking big? Who is willing to try something this daring?

The Pegasus World Cup was the brainchild of Gulfstream owner Frank Stronach, who isn’t afraid to try anything. A lot of his ideas are outlandish and a lot don’t work. But what separates Stronach from everyone in the standardbred business, with the possible exception of Jeff Gural, is that he isn’t sitting around counting the money from his slot machines. He believes in the sport and believes if you try hard enough, work hard enough and have enough good ideas you can make the game thrive.

The inaugural Pegasus World Cup had some hits and some misses. California Chrome, who finished ninth, had virtually no chance after he drew the 12 post (the equivalent of the eight hole at Yonkers), and this race never should have been run at a mile-and-and-an-eighth because of a severe post position bias at that distance. They had to pay to put the race on television. They bragged in a press release about the celebrities that were attending the race, failing to realize that most were people no one had ever heard of.

But they handled a Gulfstream record $40 million on the day and they created something unique that can only grow and get better. The Pegasus World Cup was, as they say, good for the game.

“This is just great,” said trainer Tony Alagna, who said he came to Gulfstream for no other reason than to witness a spectacle “I’m really glad I came.”

“This is a great event,” said another spectator, trainer Paul Kelley, who was sharing a box with, among others, Steve Stewart and Ross Croghan. Peter Wrenn was also spotted in the crowd.

“I like the concept,” Kelley said. “I’m a fan and I wanted to be here to see California Chrome run one last time.”

So could this be done in harness racing?

In some respects, the answer is clearly no. You’re never going to handle anywhere close to $40 million on a harness racing card and no one is going to pay $100 to get through the turnstiles of a harness track. And it’s doubtful, but not impossible, that you could find 10 people (which would be the right number) to put up $1 million each to secure a spot in a harness race… even one that would be worth $10 million.

But Kelley and Alagna were in agreement. Try it, they said. Even if it is a smaller version of the Pegasus World Cup.

“I think there are a lot of owners who would be willing to put the money up and have a race like this,” Alagna said. “I think it would be great for our business. Look at what they’ve done here today. I think it’s one of those things that people would be willing to try because it’s something that would be for the betterment of the sport. People like George Segal and Marvin Katz are sportsmen. I know they’d like to see a race like this because it would good for the whole industry. In thoroughbreds, more people are looking to do great things, not necessarily just to pay their mortgage. They’re looking for glory.”

“I think harness racing could pull this off,” Kelley said. “We would need at least two big marquee names, like Always B Miki and Wiggle It Jiggleit, and we’d need the Meadowlands as the venue. You can accomplish a lot with star power, like California Chrome and Arrogate.”

You can also accomplish a lot when you believe in your sport. They actually closed down the poker room here yesterday to free up space for the fans and no one in the slots parlor seemed to care about anything but the racing. This day was all about the racing.

“Sometimes you have to think big,” Kelley said “There are thoroughbred people who aren’t afraid to think big. That’s what we don’t do in our sport — think big.”