Pegasus World Cup is world's richest horse race with purse of $16 million
Toast of New York spent nearly three years at stud before comeback
He lived a comfortable life at stud in Qatar, but champion racehorse Toast of New York is back for a shot at $16 million in the world’s richest-ever race.
It might sound like the plot of a mushy film, but the Toast’s tale could play out to a packed house at Gulfstream Park in Florida at the end of the month.
The six-year-old colt, a multiple winner in his racing days, spent two leisurely years in retirement in Doha, occasionally doing what stallions do at stud.
But a year ago he returned to training, and with just one low-key race under his belt in December, he will take on 11 rivals in the second edition of the megabucks Pegasus World Cup on January 27.
Each set of owners has stumped up $1 million with organizers adding the rest. First prize is $7 million, second scoops $1.6 million and the sliding scale drops down to $650,000 for finishing sixth to 12th.
Should Toast triumph, in the process ousting hot favorite Gun Runner, it would be the “most amazing fairy tale,” according to British trainer Jamie Osborne, who says it’s “very rare” a horse would stand at stud and then come back to training, especially having been out for so long.
“I think they’ll make a film about it,” joked Osborne, talking to CNN Sport from his Old Malt House Stables in Upper Lambourne, England.
“It’s great story. If the unbelievable happened it’ll be like Secretariat,” added the Yorkshireman, referring to the 2010 movie about the American Triple Crown-winning horse.
‘Best I’ve ever seen him’
The Pegasus World Cup was introduced for 2017 by US racecourse giants the Stronach Group, usurping the Dubai World Cup as the richest race in the sport with an initial purse of $12 million.
The big-money showdown, which unlike many other big races is open to four-year-olds and above, was won by the Bob Baffert-trained Arrogate after a final duel with old rival and two-time Horse of the Year California Chrome.
“Our goal is to elevate the sport of horse racing, to modernize it and bring this sport to a whole new fan base,” said Canadian Belinda Stronach, president of the Stronach Group.
“This race also allows some of the best horses in the world to continue racing. It’s good for the industry and good for the sport.”
In his pomp, Toast came a close second to Bayern in the prestigious Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2014, with the celebrated California Chrome a neck behind in third.
He won a minor race on his return to the track after more than 1,100 days at Lingfield in England in December, and is apparently flying in training at home.
Osborne was seriously impressed with his final strenuous gallop, at Kempton on January 9, ahead of the Pegasus World Cup.
“We believe that there is a very strong possibility he’s every bit as good as he was when he got beaten by a nose in the Breeders’ Cup Classic,” added Osborne.
“I would be of the opinion that it’s probably the best I’ve ever seen him gallop.”
Following his Breeders Cup run, Toast was purchased by Sheikh Joaan Al Thani’s Al Shaqab Racing operation and saved for the 2015 Dubai World Cup, but he was injured ahead of the race and retired to stud.
He relaxed into the role, but owing to the small stock of broodmares in Qatar, it was decided he was being underutilized.
A “little throwaway remark” among connections a year or so ago prompted thoughts of a return to racing, according to Osborne.
“He wasn’t firing blanks or anything but in two years he had covered 15 mares or something so it wasn’t really a full-time job,” he said.
“He’ll have babies on the ground out there – 10 or 15 maybe – but if the most amazing fairytale happened in Florida there will be a bit more demand for him to resume his baby-making career.”
The first thought on everyone’s mind was whether he could come back at all.
“We felt it was a long shot he would ever make it back to the track, and secondly would he retain the ability and the desire to even consider a race of this quality?” said Osborne.
“I think if somebody had said a year ago we would be considering this route I don’t think any of us would have quite believed it really.”
Best photos from horse racing's Flat season in Great Britain and Ireland
There are very few precedents to go on, according to Osborne. Al Kazeem, a winner of multiple Group 1 races, made a winning return to the track after an unsuccessful year at stud, but the trainer can’t recall any horses returning from three years out.
“It’s very rarely tried,” said Osborne. “One of the reasons is it’s perceived there are lots of obstacles in the way.
“The general feeling is that once they’ve tasted stud life the desire to going back to being a racing animal is probably unlikely.
“There is also the physical thing – they are full of testosterone and building muscle in different places, they’re getting heavy, they’re out of shape, so can you bring a horse back that’s being doing that for any length of time?
“It’s unheard of.”
However, Osborne and the team spotted a rare quality in Toast.
“One of this horse’s strengths has always been his mentality, his desire to run faster than the horse next to him,” said Osborne.
“We always hoped there would be some of it left and what has become quite apparent to us in the last few months is that the whole amount of that desire is still there.
“He’s an ultra-competitive animal. The world is littered with talented horses that don’t have the desire and they don’t become champions. This horse is a very talented horse and he has desire and that’s what makes him what he is.”
Toast was campaigned internationally as a three-year-old in 2014, running in Dubai, New York, San Diego and Los Angeles, clinching one win, two seconds and a sixth.
“He’s got plenty of air miles,” said Osborne. “He’s a particularly good traveler. Some horses get a little bit tense with traveling, he doesn’t. He couldn’t care less as long as he’s got his food and his drink he’s happy. I’m pretty certain this horse will take it in his stride.”
The motivation for the Pegasus run is not difficult to work out.
“We like the weather in Florida,” laughs Osborne. “Look, it’s the richest race ever run in the world. Ever. It’s nine furlongs on dirt. It’s his ideal distance, the ideal surface for him and it’s $16 million dollars. What more do you need?
“The whole story of Toast, the moderately bred animal that was left out unsold as a yearling, then I couldn’t sell him … it’s been a magnificent story to this point but it would get a bit mushy if he won a Pegasus.”
This year’s favorite is the Steve Asmussen-trained Gun Runner, who won the Breeders Cup Classic in 2017. Other Pegasus entries Collected, West Coast and Gunnevera were second, third and fifth respectively in the race at Del Mar in November, while a host of other Group 1 winners will line up for a shot at the lucrative prize at Gulfstream Park.
The rest of the world has taken notice of the size of the pot, according to Stronach, who says it will be “awesome” should it spark a prize-money arms race with Dubai and others.
Veteran Italian jockey Frankie Dettori, 47, will once again ride Toast and will bring a wealth of big-race experience, according to Osborne.
“Clearly Gun Runner is the outstanding mile-and-a-quarter dirt horse in America at this moment in time,” said Osborne.
“What Toast may do is enable people to compare the California Chrome/Shared Belief era with the Gun Runner era.”
Belinda Stronach: The woman behind the Pegasus World Cup
As for Osborne, the former jump jockey turned Flat racing trainer, where will it rank in his achievements?
“It might just be a career-defining moment, mightn’t it?” he laughs.
“There is always an element of luck involved because ultimately they’re not bicycles, they’re animals. They are the ones that do the running, we are secondary to them.
“The reality is I’ve had a lot of help on my side – i.e. this horse’s ability. I can’t make him run faster than God allowed him to run.
“What I can do is to produce him in a way, manage him a way, that allows him to run as fast as God allowed him to run.”
A fairytale win would make Toast of New York the toast of the racing world.