THE PEGASUS AND THE PENNSYLVANIA BREDS
By Dick Jerardi
It was the perfect Bucks County afternoon as the snow and the temperatures came down. Sit in front of the laptop and watch the races from Gulfstream Park, awaiting the showdown between the almost certain 2021 Horse of the Year and a prospective 2022 Horse of the Year. As an appetizer, we got a Grade II stake featuring two Pennsylvania bred fillies with immense talent. And before we got there, I got a one-word text from Dani Gibson – “WITTY!!!!!!’’
As in the Pa. bred gelding Witty who was so impressive winning the Dec. 7 $200,000 Pa. Nursery at Parx. Bred and owned by Lizzie Merryman and trained by her son McLane Hendricks, Witty won the Nursery by 5 ½ lengths under regular rider Carol Cedeno. Sitting midpack, the horse just exploded on the turn and powered away in the stretch.
Witty was 6-1 in Saturday’s Spectacular Bid at Laurel Park. I was not watching the race because I was engrossed in the Gulfstream card, But when I watched the replay that night, it was just as Dani wrote: “Dusted them.’’
Just like in the race at Parx, Witty was a few lengths off the pace in midpack early in the 7-furlong race. And almost like a replay, Witty, off at 6-1, exploded on the turn, inhaled heavy favorite HP Moon, and ran away from the field in the stretch, winning by 7 3/4 lengths, earning an 81 Beyer speed figure.
The connections will have plenty of choices for Witty in 2022, but hard to imagine he would not be a heavy favorite in any of those 3-year-old Pa. bred races.
Just a half-hour after Witty proved a great advertisement for the Pa. bred program in Maryland, a 4-year-old filly and 7-year-old mare proved even a greater advertisement in the Grade II Inside Information at Gulfstream.
Just One Time, the filly, was 4-for-5 at Presque Isle Downs and Penn National last spring, summer, and fall. Her last two races at Penn were so fast that she was purchased privately and turned over to trainer Brad Cox.
Making her first start for Cox and first, since Oct. 22, Just One Time was sent off as the 3-2 favorite in the $200,000 7-furlong race. The filly, under Joel Rosario, reared up in the gate not long before the start. Then, she did not break particularly well so instead of being near the lead as she had been in all of her starts, she was seventh early. No matter. She started rolling by horses on the turn and kept on rolling past all of them, winning by three-quarters of a length.
The mare Jakarta, seen most recently winning the Dec 28 $100,000 Mrs. Claus Stakes at Parx, was in a pace duel up top. She finally got rid of the other speed horse only to be confronted by the closers including Just One Time. Jakarta held gamely to be third, running her record on fast dirt surfaces to 6 wins, 1 second and a third in 10 starts.
It was some showing by the two Pa. breds in open stakes against such accomplished mares as Four Graces and Pacific Gale.
It was a several-hour wait until Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Knicks Go and BC Dirt Mile winner Life Is Good entered the starting gate for the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational. There were nine horses in the gate, but only two mattered. Very late money made Life Is Good a slight 4-5 favorite while Knicks Go, who had been the favorite until the end, went off at 9-10.
The race essentially was over 100 yards in when Life Is Good easily beat Knicks Go to the lead. When you give a talent like Life Is Good that kind of an edge, he will win just about every time. He won this time by 3 1/4 lengths, but it never felt that close.
Knicks Go was 10-for-13 in his career when he had a clear lead, 0-for-10 when he did not. Making his final start before going to stud, Knicks Go kept trying all the way to the finish line, holding off Stilleto Boy the length of the stretch to save second by a length. It was a very impressive effort for a horse that had not shown much fight earlier in his career when taken out of his comfort zone.
We will never know this, but, if he hadn’t been hurt in the runup to the 2021 Triple Crown, I will always believe Life Is Good was going to win the Kentucky Derby and perhaps even the Triple Crown. The now 4-year-old is an uncharacteristically tentative Mike Smith ride from being unbeaten in seven starts. Life Is Good beat 2021 Derby winner Medina Spirit twice last winter, once close, once in a blowout.
So, as Knicks Go leaves the stage, Life Is Good takes center stage. After the race, his trainer Todd Pletcher said Life Is Good is the best horse he’s ever had. That is some statement from a man who has trained some of the very best.
Life Is Good, as announcer Larry Collmus said at the end of his Del Mar debut, is “very, very, very good.’’ So now we await the next titanic confrontation. If we are lucky, sometime during 2022, we will see Life Is Good in the same starting gate as the incredible Flightline. Can’t wait.