Even before their runaway victories this past November in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Dirt Mile, respectively, Knicks Go and Life Is Good were the talk of the horse racing world. And on Saturday at Florida’s Gulfstream Park, they’ll finally compete against each other in one of the sport’s richest races, the Grade 1, $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational.
Knicks Go — which Americans incorrectly pronounce like the NBA team (it’s actually K-nicks) — was installed as a narrow (6-5) morning line favorite over Life Is Good (7-5). Every other entry in the nine-horse field was assigned double-digit odds at Tuesday’s draw.
So will this 1-1/8-mile duel on dirt wind up being the match race that handicappers expect it to be? Wary as one should be of such proclamations in such an unpredictable sport, the answer is: almost certainly.
Only one of the horses that took on Knicks Go in the Classic is declining to duck this race, and that horse is fifth-place finisher Stilleto Boy (20-1), who came back to finish an underwhelming third in the Grade 1 Malibu at Santa Anita. Jockey Kent Desormeaux likely summed up the also-ran sentiment when he recently told The Daily Racing Form, “Maybe he’ll run a great race and one of the others will have a bad day. It’s a very rich race. I want to win, but a third would be brilliant.”
Or, as Horse Racing Nation put it, “The Pegasus looks like a great race to watch as a fan.”
That’s true not only because of how talented the top two horses are, but because they both like to go straight to the lead and stay there. Before stretching out in the Classic, Knicks Go won the 2020 Dirt Mile at Keeneland. In their respective Dirt Mile victories, both covered the first quarter-mile in a shade under 22 seconds and never let up, earning nearly identical Beyer Speed Figures (108 for Knicks Go, 109 for Life Is Good).
Knicks Go put up the same speed figure in winning last year’s Pegasus, which was the first time he’d raced at a distance longer than 1-1/16 miles. Same goes for Life Is Good in this year’s edition, and there’s no reason to think that the 4-year-old, who’s won five of six lifetime starts, can’t answer skeptics in a similar manner.
This will be Knicks Go’s final race before the 6-year-old is retired to stud. But horse racing’s not basketball, where outgoing superstars are often permitted to go out in style by opposing defenses, if you can even call them that. Life Is Good has more upside at this stage of his career than his older rival, who will need to break with extreme urgency from the far inside post.
If the two favored frontrunners absolutely incinerate each other on the lead, a veteran router like Title Ready (20-1) or Sir Winston (12-1) might be able to pick up the pieces. But don’t bet on that happening. Instead, sports gamblers should turn their attention to Saturday’s featured turf races at the ‘Stream.
Pick a horse, any horse
Handicappers could make a viable case for wagering on at least nine of the 12 entrants in the $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational, which will be contested over 1-1/8 miles on the Gulfstream grass.
As with the dirt version, the Pegasus Turf field features the race’s defending champion in Colonel Liam, a 3-1 morning line favorite. But the Colonel is no Knicks Go — he finished a flaccid eighth in the Manhattan at Belmont back in June and hasn’t raced since. Trainer Todd Pletcher is certainly capable of getting a horse to fire after an extended layoff, but given the inherent shakiness of that dynamic and the overall depth of the field, bettors may be better-served looking elsewhere.
Another 5-year-old, Hit the Road (7-2 ML), is in fine form, coming off a pair of third-place finishes in graded stakes races in Southern California. The same could be said for Sacred Life (6-1), who finished second by a head in Del Mar’s Grade 2 Seabiscuit Handicap on Nov. 27 after winning the Knickerbocker a month-and-a-half earlier across the country at Belmont. Trainer Chad Brown is one of the most formidable shippers in the game, so expect a solid effort out of this horse with jockey Jose Ortiz holding the reins.
The horse that bested Sacred Life in the Seabiscuit (and lost to him in the Knickerbocker), Field Pass, is here as well, and has been assigned longer odds (10-1). This is instructive: In a deep, full field, there’s tons of value to be found in wagering on horses carrying double-digit odds.
To this end, the lightly raced 7-year-old Doswell (10-1) had the best outing of his career at Gulfstream at the same distance in winning the Grade 2 Fort Lauderdale on Dec. 18. He’s the only horse that legendary trainer Barclay Tagg (Funny Cide, Tiz the Law) is saddling on Saturday, which should give his backers an extra dose of confidence.
And if bettors are looking to really maximize their potential payout, trainer Michael Maker has a pair of extremely live longshots in Flavius (15-1) and Atone (20-1), the latter of which finished second by a length-and-a-half to Doswell in the Fort Lauderdale.
A bunch of classy ladies
The $500,000 Filly And Mare Turf, which will be contested at 1-1/16 miles, is a new addition to Pegasus Saturday, and features a deep, 11-horse field that is reminiscent of the other featured grass race in terms of quality and wagering options.
Sweet Melania (5-1), Shifty She (6-1), and In a Hurry (12-1), finished a tightly bunched 1-2-3 in the mile-long, Grade 3 Suwannee River on the Gulfstream grass on Dec. 18, and could all be in contention here. Same goes for Brown’s Regal Glory, a deserving 2-1 morning line favorite coming off a decisive win in the Grade 1 Matriarch at Del Mar on Nov. 28.
However, you might be more richly rewarded for reaching for a pair of newly minted 4-year-olds who could take a big step forward here. Trained by Bill Mott, Wakanaka (12-1) is an Irish-bred who’s dominated the Italian circuit over the past couple of years, winning six of eight races. She hasn’t raced since winning a Grade 3 in April of last year and will be making her U.S. debut on Saturday in Hallandale Beach. So, as with Colonel Liam, bettors’ willingness to back this filly will be based, in large part, on their confidence in Mott, who, at 45, became the youngest trainer ever to be inducted into horse racing’s Hall of Fame in 1998.
But if you’re going to go big, why not go bigger? That’s the case for Bipartisanship (20-1) a rapidly improving, Graham Motion-trained filly who enjoyed a breakout race on the Gulfstream turf the day after Christmas in winning the Tropical Park Oaks at odds of 19-1. There, Bipartisanship toppled another Pegasus rival, Lady Speightspeare, the favorite in that race who’s been assigned 8-1 ML odds here.
Photo: Douglas DeFelice/USA TODAY