Imagine thoroughbred racing at its most idyllic, and you’d arrive at Keeneland Race Course on the outskirts of Lexington, Kentucky. The parking lots are made not of asphalt, but of grass. Early arrivals tailgate not by sipping Bud Light, but cups of brown
Keeneland — from the structure to the booze to the employees — is stitched in vivid shades of green, brown, and white. In the distance are fields of even more horses, running freely, a reminder that in these parts, the development of equine stock is of utmost importance. Even when fraught with competitive failure, the scene is unflinchingly genteel.
Then there's Gulfstream Park. At the entrance is the gaudy presence of “Pegasus and Dragon,” the second-tallest statue in the continental United States, next to the Statue of Liberty. This gigantic winged horse crushing a dragon was erected not as a tribute to the immigrants who populate this great nation, but as a testament to the enormous ego of Gulfstream Park’s paterfamilias, Frank Stronach.
But here’s the thing: As much as racing purists hate to admit it, Gulfstream represents perhaps the shrewdest way forward for a sport that most Americans contemplate about as often as John Lithgow’s undergarments. It’s basically an equal-share tenant in an upscale shopping mall, where you can probably finagle a wager while purchasing a watch that John Mayer recommended on Twitter.
Unlike many formerly great tracks (Belmont Park comes to mind) that host more pigeons than people nowadays, Gulfstream’s grandstand is tiny. Yet it programs a ton of top-flight races, due in no small part to South Florida’s fabulous winter weather and a savvy embrace of simulcasting.
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This Saturday, Gulfstream hosts the second-annual Pegasus World Cup, which boasts the sport’s richest purse. Many of the dozen horses' connections have put up $1 million per stall. The vast majority of that money ($16 million when you count what the Stronachs kick in) will make whatever horse wins one of the highest earners in the sport’s history.
To this end, if Gun Runner — winner of six of his last seven races, including a trouncing of last year’s Pegasus winner, Arrogate, in November’s Breeders’ Cup Classic in San Diego — doesn’t prevail, it will be a significant surprise.
But horseracing is full of remarkable results, and betting on a heavy favorite is a really crummy financial proposition. Look instead to West Coast, a 4-year-old with room to improve who finished a game third to Gun Runner in the Classic. Or go ahead and bet on Toast of New York, a 7-year-old long shot that’s run in just one race since 2014. After getting nosed out in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, the horse retired to stud before saying fuck it to fucking and training again. If you can do it, so can he.