Superstar horses, colorful crowd create glitzy spectacle for Pegasus World Cup

Craig Davis
Contact ReporterSouth Florida Sun-Sentinel
Superstar horses, colorful crowd create glitzy spectacle for Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park.

They rolled out the red carpet for the big gamblers and the beautiful people Saturday at Gulfstream Park.

Correction, the carpet was blue — a vibrant blue in keeping with the color scheme of the Pegasus World Cup Invitational. But the intent was clear in establishing upon arrival that this was a special day, and that the show would be as much with the crowd as on the track.

Regular patrons would tell you the $100 general admission and $20 fee to park was plenty indication that this wasn't like any other day at Gulfstream, considering that both are free on normal days. But then, there had never been a $12 million purse for a single horse race, here or anywhere else before.

This was the embodiment of Sport of Kings before a crowd of 16,653.

So this was history, not only being the first race with owners putting up $1 million apiece to enter, but also the swan song of California Chrome in a rematch with Arrogate in a showdown of the top two racehorses in the world, which Arrogate would win impressively.

That brought out the high rollers and cache of celebrities including Usher, Gene Simmons, Vanessa Hudgens, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Aaron Paul and Mike Ditka. Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist awarded an undercard trophy.

"You've got a little mix of everything rolled up in one: Breeders' Cup, Kentucky Derby, it's kind of cool," said Dan Paradiso, 61, of Hollywood Beach. "It's fun, it's unique. And the weather, you can't beat it."

There was no question who the genuine stars were when Arrogate and California Chrome were the last to enter the walking ring to a huge roar. They had spent several minutes pacing up and down the walkway outside the paddock, just the two favorites, passing each other at least a dozen times. Arrogate appeared to glance at his rival on one pass.

Chrome was clearly the fan favorite. There were shouts of encouragement as he was last to leave the ring on the way to the track with an enthusiastic throng trailing behind — men in suits, women on high heels and adorned with decorative hats — as if caught up in the great horse's slip-stream.

The crowd at trackside strained for a view, almost every spectator with camera phones raised. One woman held a fruity drink in one hand while snapping off photos with the other. What they recorded wasn't what many had hoped to see.

There were cheers of appreciation when Arrogate streaked home 4 3/4 lengths ahead of Shaman Ghost, the entry of Gulfstream owner Frank Stronach.

But there was a palpable sense of group disappointment as Chrome faded to ninth an inexplicable 29 1/2 lengths behind the winner.

"Post position killed that horse," exclaimed one man, referring to California Chrome starting outside in the No. 12 post and having to run six wide around the first turn.

A man in a plaid sports coat made a show of tearing up his betting ticket and tossing it like confetti. A woman who had cheered vigorously for Chrome frowned, then said, "It's OK, go make babies." She had called in sick to work in order to watch his final race.

Anticipation had built throughout the day in a festival atmosphere. Well-dressed fans who had paid several hundred dollars for seats in the premium viewing areas arrived in expensive cars. Many fans that didn't pony up for the pricey admission leaned over temporary fences just to catch a glimpse of the horses in the walking ring.

Considering it took less than two minutes to run the race and there were comfortable intervals in the 12-race program, there was ample opportunity for distractions of food, drink and frivolity.

Many stopped to pose at the mirror selfie station and social media sharing booth on the second floor outside Ten Palms trackside restaurant, where seats went for up to $765.

But the photos were free, and you could post them direct to the social media site of your choice.

At trackside, you could get a selfie taken with the Pegasus Cup trophy if you made a $5 donation to Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital.

"It's everything — all the people, the hats, the clothing. The women are so fashionable and dressed up. That's nice to see here in Florida," said Lizeth Lowe, a hat designer who wore one of her creations with an array of butterflies and flowers rising above her head.

Donna Soper and Brian Muzyk, who came from Toronto for the race, wore multi-colored OppoSuits — his with shorts, hers with a skirt — which they purchased online for $100 apiece. That was the same as they paid to get in the gate.

"We can't even afford to bet on California Chrome," Soper said. "We're just wandering around having fun."

Hollywood resident Paradiso made his fashion statement in Jaromir Jagr No. 68 Florida Panthers jersey. He comes often to bet the horses while his wife plays the slots in the casino.

Paradiso said the admission was a jolt but felt it was worth it to be part of a special event. He had spoken to other regulars who elected not to pay for the big ticket.s

"It was not an easy decision. You try not to alienate your day-in and day-out fans, and really you are," Tim Ritvo, COO of Gulfstream Park, said of setting the cheapest ticket at $100. "You didn't want to have the place where it wouldn't function. Not knowing what the inaugural would look like, if we could do it all over again we probably would have adjusted downward, maybe half of that."

Ritvo pointed out the price isn't outlandish for championship sports event. A 100-level seat for next week's Super Bowl in Houston is $1,700 at face value, but fans will pay several thousand on the resale market to watch the Patriots and Falcons. Even cheap seats to see the musical "Hamilton" will set you back $200, if you can get them.

As it turned out, the first Pegasus Cup was a huge hit. The $40.217 million bet Saturday was a record for Gulfstream, topping the $32.082 million handle for the 2016 Florida Derby.

"It had the feel of a huge sporting event," said Garrett O'Rourke, manager of Arrogate's ownership group.

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