Premier Pegasus provided a clear leader for the previously wide open 3-year-old division on the West Coast with his smashing 7 3/4-length romp in the $250,000 San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) March 12 at Santa Anita (VIDEO).
Owned and bred by Myung Kwon Cho, who also trains the Fusaichi Pegasus colt, Premier Pegasus becomes the horse to beat in the $1 million Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) April 9. Premier Pegasus' sire, in 2000, was the last San Felipe winner to also capture the Kentucky Derby (gr. I).
Alonso Quinonez rode the 7-1 Premier Pegasus to victory with favored Jaycito emerging from the pack late to garner the runner-up spot. Jaycito, however, was not gaining ground on Premier Pegasus, who got a couple of left-handed cracks of the whip in upper stretch to gain command and cruised home while being kept to the task. The final time for the 1 1/16-mile event was a strong 1:41.23 over a fast track.
This was the first two-turn effort in Premier Pegasus' career. The dark bay or brown colt won all three of his races last year, including the Hollywood Prevue (gr. III) in November. In his first start of 2011, he ran third in the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes (gr. II) on a wet-fast track Feb. 20, finishing 3 1/4 lengths behind the victorious The Factor after pressing the pace.
Three other San Felipe winners besides Fusaichi Pegasus have captured the Kentucky Derby: Sunday Silence (1989), Affirmed (1978), and Determine (1954).
Premier Pegasus, racing without blinkers for the first time, was near the rear of the pack for much of the journey after floating out on the first turn. Quinonez was content to rate off a quick pace established by Runflatout and Albergatti. The first quarter-mile was run in a sprint-like :21.75 and the half went in :44.58.
Comma to the Top, on the outside of the early leaders, made the first move, getting the lead on the turn after clicking six furlongs in 1:08.98 and inching away. Premier Pegasus, though, made an eye-catching advance while four wide on the turn to reach contention at the quarter pole. He took a narrow lead and spurted away from Comma to the Top in upper stretch when asked for more by Quinonez.
It was all over after that, although 2-1 choice Jaycito, far back on the backstretch for Martin Garcia, ran on encouragingly while five wide into the stretch. He finished second by 1 1/4 lengths. The California-bred Bench Points, losing for the first time in five starts, was third with David Flores in the irons.
"The horses were flying on the lead during the first part of the race and I knew they were going to come back to the field," said Quinonez, who ended a 69-race losing skid in the San Felipe. "I was just hoping to make a move at the right time and he did. He waited for me until I asked him. At the three-eighths pole he switched leads and grabbed the bridle. I didn’t hold his intentions back, I just let him go. He knew it was time to go because he is a very special horse."
“If you cry nobody is going to listen," Quinonez said of his drought. "I’ve had a couple slumps before, but this has been a tough one. This is the race you want to win to start again, though.”
Comma to the Top was a half-length farther back in fourth, followed by Quail Hill, Awesome Patriot, Surrey Star, Jakesam, Albergatti, and second choice Runflatout.
Premier Pegasus, out of the Summer Squall mare Squall Linda, added $150,000 in graded earnings toward a possible start in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). His fourth win in five starts boosted his career total to $293,400.
“We took the blinkers off because we were thinking it would make him relax a little bit more," said Cho, 68, through his interpreter, 17-year-old son Raxon. "We didn’t want him to sprint out with all these speed horses. He‘s a smart horse so we knew that he’d be ready to run without blinkers."
Sent off as the fourth choice, he paid $16.60, $7.20 and $5 and keyed a $48.60 exacta. Jaycito, winner of Oak Tree's Norfolk Stakes (gr. I) and making his first start since finishing unplaced in the Grey Goose Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), returned $4.60 and $3.60 in his initial start for trainer Bob Baffert. Bench Points was $5.40 to show.
“He did good," Baffert said of the runner-up. "He was way back there. The horse learned a lot today, so we’ll go step by step.”