Cave Rock could give horse racing fans a glimpse of greatness

ARCADIA — When racing fans show up at Santa Anita on Saturday to watch the $300,000 Grade I American Pharoah Stakes, they might be looking at the 2023 Kentucky Derby winner.

Yes, it’s way early for such bold prognostications. As far as who’s the best of next year’s 3-year-old crop, we’re on the third or fourth hole on the Thursday of a major golf championship. But remember, we said “might be.”

The colt we’re referring to is Cave Rock, a son of the late Arrogate. You might remember Arrogate. He put together one of the best four races in succession we’re ever seen – the Travers, Breeders’ Cup Classic, Pegasus World Cup and Dubai World Cup in 2016-17. He was sensational.

Cave Rock has been sensational in his own right through the lone two starts of his career. He won his career bow at Del Mar on Aug. 13 by six lengths, running the 6½ furlongs in 1:15 4/5. That’s fine, a lot of horses win their debuts in such fashion and then turn out to be ordinary race horses.

But Cave Rock appears to be a different animal. He came back in the Del Mar Futurity on Sept. 11 and put on one heck of a show, going gate to wire while carving out ridiculously fast fractions of 21.56, 43.65 and 1:08.55. The amazing part was that after setting those splits, when most horses might have been running on empty in the final stages, he drew off in the stretch to win by 5¼ lengths while running the 7 furlongs in the stakes-record time of 1:20.99.

“He could be any kind,” co-owner Michael Pegram said in the Santa Anita winner’s circle after another of his horses, Midnight Memories, had won the Grade II Zenyatta Stakes on Sunday.

Cave Rock will be trying two turns for the first time, which is always a test a horse must pass in order to be labeled a great one. Many horses have looked like a million bucks around one turn, but give them that additional ground to cover and they’re not the same animal.

Cave Rock’s trainer, Bob Baffert, knows that more than anyone.

“Bayern, I didn’t think he was going to get two turns, and all of a sudden he matured in the fall,” he said. “He won the Haskell. I’ve had other horses where I thought they were two-turn horses, I ran them and they would hang. They were good horses, but they couldn’t handle it.”

We’ll find out Saturday if Cave Rock can handle it, but until then, Pegram and partners Karl Watson and Paul Weitman have been en fuego these past few weeks. They enjoyed a big Del Mar meet, and have picked up where they left off at the seaside track.

For instance, another of the trio’s top horses, 2-year-old Speed Boat Beach, came back one race after Midnight Memories and won the Speakeasy Stakes to earn a berth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint at Keeneland on Nov. 4.

“We’re on a roll. We’ll take it,” Pegram said. “We had a great Del Mar. One thing about it: Nothing you can do when you lose, so you don’t apologize when you win.”

Pegram and Baffert go way back – all the way to their days together at Los Alamitos in the mid-1980s when the two of them were involved in the quarter-horse game. Baffert trained Pegram’s first quarter horse and the two have been inseparable since.

“We’re both on the back nine (of our lives),” the 70-year-old Pegram joked after enjoying another success story with his good pal.

Pegram’s story is an interesting one. He owns about two dozen McDonald’s restaurants in Arizona and is a partner in casinos in Reno. He became interested in horse racing while growing up in Indiana and met Baffert through Hal Earnhardt, an Arizona car dealer, when Baffert was training the quarters at Los Alamitos.

He often owns horses in partnership with Watson and Weitman, but has also owned horses on his own. He raced Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Real Quiet in 1998, Dubai World Cup winner Captain Steve and Hall of Famer Silverbulletday.

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Pegram, Watson and Weitman’s first horse together was Eclipse Award-winning sprinter Midnight Lute, who won back-to-back Breeders’ Cup Sprints in 2007 and 2008 at Monmouth Park and Santa Anita. They were also partners in Lookin At Lucky, the 2010 Preakness winner.

Now they might just be looking at the best horse they’ve ever owned. It’s a long way to the 2023 Kentucky Derby, but they’re off to a good start. We’ll know more around 4:45 p.m. Saturday.

Follow Art Wilson on Twitter @Sham73