By Jennie Rees for NTRA.com
LAS VEGAS — Of all the races used the first two days of the DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, none will be watched closer than Saturday’s 12th at Gulfstream Park. That’s where Horse of the Year California Chrome and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Arrogate square off against 10 foes widely regarded as overmatched in the $12 million Pegasus World Cup.
The 1 1/8-mile Pegasus is one of eight mandatory races Saturday, meaning the field of a record 654 entries must include a mythical $2 win and place bet on a horse in the world’s richest horse race. While it might seem a bad betting race with two overwhelming favorites, the nationally televised Pegasus also presents interesting tactical challenges. Do you take the $7 or $8 max you figure to get by betting one of the favorites, or go for a bomb that could move you up the leader board?
“If I’m comfortably in the top 10, then I’d go with the safe bet,” said Charlie Davis, who finished third in last year’s NHC at the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino. “If I’m not, I’m just going to have to go with a price, knowing I have so little chance of winning.… And there’s so much debate about which one of them will win.”
Said Roger Cettina, who finished second last year, “I hope I can be in position to use either one of them. But Gulfstream is tricky on a big day. Who knows what they’re going to do to the racetrack? Sometimes on a big day they really speed it up. You have to really pay attention.
“That race is tough because if you’re up near the top, you’re probably really scared about a bomb winning. In a mandatory format, I don’t see why anybody would bet either one of those favorites. Because what does it really do for you? Unless you really need the $8 or $10. If you’re on the verge of being in the top 66 to move on (to the semifinals), maybe those people would play them.”
Joe Appelbaum, who as winner of the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge will earn a $3 million bonus should he capture NHC18, said in an interview with ESPN Louisville radio Tuesday that he didn’t think the contest administrators would pick the Pegasus.
But since it is, Appelbaum said his selection would depend “on where my standings are compared to the field. I’m totally flexible.”
While it’s not the last race, it’s late enough in the day that “it’s actually more tactical,” Appelbaum said. “If it were early, you’d probably just bet who you think is going to win the race. But at that point, it’s 100 percent tactical.
“I understand why the organizers would put it in, because it’s such an important race industry-wise. From a contest perspective I’m a little surprised, because you have to make a stark choice who you’re going to choose.”
Jonathon Kinchen, last year’s NHC Tour winner, said a group of horseplayers last week debated whether the Pegasus would be a mandatory. “I think it’s great,” he said. “It’s a much better handicapping puzzle than some crappy race for $10,000 claimers shipping in and coming in off layoffs. I prefer the handicapping puzzle of what’s Chrome going to do from post 12? Arrogate hasn’t raced since November. Which one of these other horses might run well.”
For Louisville’s John Nichols, a regular NHC qualifier, there’s little point in taking a short price because “it’s not going to make any difference anyway.
“You’ll only get $4 or $5 on the win price, $3 on the place. You’re better off looking for something of value that could run up there and at least get a better place price, even if they don’t win.
“The room is going to go nuts down the stretch. Even if the horse they have in the contest isn’t running late, half the room will be for Chrome, half for Arrogate. If they come down the stretch ding-donging, it will be wild. And if there’s a bomb coming, people will go nuts.”
Keith Chamblin, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s chief operating officer and NHC tournament director, said the reasoning was simple for including the Pegasus.
“We felt pretty strongly that the world’s richest horse race needed to be part of the show,” he said. “We also think it’s a pretty compelling race for players, specifically at that time of the day, when you’re going to have some people who need to make up a lot of ground and others trying to protect their lead. Should a longshot win, it could be the difference in the tournament. Frankly, should one of the two favorites win, it could be the difference in the tournament. Because this tournament has been won by only one dollar before.”
Mark Waggoner of Lexington, Ky., who qualified through Kentucky Downs, said he believes it is a two-horse race. “I’ll see where I am and if I have to take stab, otherwise you’ve got to go with one of those two,” he said. “And if you don’t, where do you go? I just can’t get past those two.”
Paul Matties Jr., last year’s NHC champ and the 2016 Eclipse Award champion handicapper, doesn’t mind having the Pegasus as a mandatory race because of its full field.
“Even though it has the two horses, I think it’s OK to do it,” he said. “Because you can go different ways. The bad part might be that it could determine the contest if both the favorites run bad, and everybody is almost forced to pick against them…. You’re going to definitely pick a horse you probably don’t think is going to win. That kind of goes against a handicapping contest.”
With Arrogate breaking on the rail with his stalking style, and California Chrome on the extreme outside with the short run into the turn, those disadvantageous post positions could be something of an equalizer.
“All you ask for are big fields,” said NHC participant Bill Downes, who is Indiana Grand’s announcer. “And it’s the biggest race of the weekend. Anybody playing from behind will throw the top two out and take somebody else. Maybe in some small instances you could maybe take a look at the favorites, but I’m going to take somebody else. I’m not going to take the big two, that’s for sure.”