Analysis: Examining Kukulkan's Pegasus World Cup chances

January 11, 2019 11:34am
Analysis: Examining Kukulkan's Pegasus World Cup chances
Photo: Leslie Martin/Gulfstream Park
Despite Kukulkan’s 14-for-14 record and successful North American debut in the Caribbean Classic Stakes, the 4-year-old colt from Mexico will go into his next start as a longshot, and perhaps an underlaid one because of his large following.  

If all goes as planned, Kukulkan will attempt the Grade 1, $9 million Pegasus World Cup on Jan. 26 at Gulfstream Park, and on paper there is almost no chance he can upset.

Numbers are not the “end all” in horse racing, but if he starts in the Pegasus, the math indicates Kukulkan will lose by a significant margin. It would take a miracle to win.

To show this, I've used Beyer and TimeformUS speed figures to approximate the difference in ability between him and the two most probable winners, City of Light and Accelerate. Kukulkan’s Caribbean Classic speed figures on both scales will be compared to the numbers earned by City of Light and Accelerate in the Oaklawn Handicap (G2) last April, as both races are the same distance as the Pegasus.

Kukulkan earned a 71 Beyer Speed Figure, although he opened up by 10 1/4 lengths. Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. did hit him hard a couple of times, indicating an all-out drive.

Horses do not always run to their peak speed figure, but in this case, Kukulkan probably ran his best race. The 71 works as a good number to use in this analysis.

In the Oaklawn Handicap, City of Light and Accelerate tied each other with a 107 Beyer Speed Figure. City of Light earned this number in the most impressive way possible, breaking awkwardly and going wide on the first turn through a fast opening quarter, then pushing with another wide move on the far turn before out-dueling Accelerate late.

With a cleaner, ground-saving trip, City of Light could run a higher Beyer. For a conservative comparison though, the 107 earned by both horses will be used. 

If 71 is subtracted from 107, that is a difference of 36 Beyer points.

According to the “How to Use DRF – Speed Figures” page on the Daily Racing Form website, two points equals one length in route racing. Using past Beyers, Kukulkan’s best possible Pegasus finish would measure an 18-length loss.

While Beyer and TimeformUS are now under the same company, the two sides do not always agree on the final speed figure. For example, Kukulkan earned a 97 TimeformUS number. Using the approximate conversion scale, that number equals a 77 Beyer Speed Figure.

So essentially the 97 brings Kukulkan no closer to City of Light and Accelerate on the TimeformUS scale. Those two powerhouses earned a lofty 133 TimeformUS Speed Figure in the Oaklawn Handicap, 36 points higher than Kukulkan’s 97 figure.

According to TimeformUS, 1.4 points equals one length at nine furlongs. Dividing 36 TimeformUS speed points by 1.4 equals approximately 25.7 lengths.

Using TimeformUS, Kukulkan’s best possible Pegasus finish is a 25-length loss.

While it is possible the winning Pegasus speed figure will turn out lower than a 107 Beyer or 133 on TimeformUS, given the race’s prestige, all horses will come into this event tuned up for an optimum run. In the short history of this event, Arrogate won with a 119 Beyer and 134 TimeformUS Figure, and Gun Runner earned a 119 and 141.

At a minimum, Kukulkan needs to improve 18 lengths on Beyer and 25 lengths on TimeformUS to contend for the win. Assuming he did not run all out (even though it looks like he did) and can step forward, a 20-30 length improvement is unlikely.

Given all those numbers, why would anyone bet Kukulkan?

In important races which gain national attention, bettors flock toward familiar horses. Think about this: In 1996, the claimer Rick’s Natural Star went as low as 29-1 when betting began in the Breeders’ Cup Turf before drifting up to a still underlaid 56-1. He had absolutely no chance and eased to the finish. 

In fairness, Kukulkan shows a lot more talent on paper than Rick’s Natural Star did heading in the Breeders’ Cup (which also illustrates how badly the latter was overmatched).

Plus, Kukulkan is still a younger horse with some upside. Furthermore, trainer Fausto Gutierrez secured the services of world-renowned jockey Frankie Dettori. An experienced rider like him would not waste his time, unless he figured riding Kukulkan is more exciting than sitting alone in the jockey’s room.

For what it is worth, Gutierrez sounds like a humble man in interviews.

“I know competition is very, very strong, but we want to try and give the horse a chance," he said upon declaring Kukulkan for the race.

Owner Germán Larrea, who runs under Cuadra San Jorge, likely wants to take a shot for the experience of running in the Pegasus. If true, that is understandable. 

Lots of connections run their horse for the experience every May when overmatched 3-year-olds take a shot at the Kentucky Derby. The Pegasus must rank up there as a race connections want to participate in. Watching their horse compete in the race is a thrill. 

If Kukulkan somehow won, it would make for an incredible story, and perhaps rank as a bigger upset than when Mine That Bird won the 2009 Kentucky Derby at 50-1, or when Arcangues took the 1993 Breeders’ Cup Classic at 133-1. Hopefully for his connections, Kukulkan proves the above analysis wrong and shows he can run with the best horses in this country.


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Meet Reinier Macatangay

My first time at the racetrack came as a 5-year-old kid at Santa Anita Park. For most of my younger life, that was the only track I attended other the occasional visit to Hollywood Park. 

Years later, after graduating California State University, Stanislaus with an English MA, I began writing for Lady and the Track. From late 2014-2016, my articles were seen on a weekly basis and covered handicapping, interviews with well-known racing personalities, fashion and more. 

The handicapping style I use concentrates on pace analysis. Some horses are compromised by the pace. Others are helped. Handicappers just starting out cannot easily see how pace affects the finish, so with this blog, I hope to help those unsure of how to apply pace into their handicapping and post-race analysis. 

On an unrelated note, I enjoy video games and attending anime or comic-book conventions. I am currently based in Kentucky, but spend a lot of time traveling between there and California.

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