Godolphin Looking to Kickstart Year in $3M Pegasus (G1)
Eclipse Favorite as Owner, Breeder to Send Out First Mission
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL — This is a week on the calendar in which Sheikh Mohammed’s international racing and bloodstock operation Godolphin has enjoyed tremendous success in recent years.
Godolphin is the heavy favorite to be feted Thursday at the Breakers in Palm Beach with Eclipse Awards as North America’s outstanding owner and breeder for 2023. Godolphin has won an Eclipse Awards three straight years as leading owner and five overall, and two straight as leading breeder with a third under the Darley banner.
That said, the Godolphin team is hoping this week ends with a different twist two days later at Gulfstream Park – winning its first $3 million Pegasus World Cup (G1) Invitational presented by Baccarat with the 4-year-old homebred First Mission.
Saturday’s 1 1/8-mile Pegasus and the Kentucky Derby (G1) are about the only signature American races that Sheikh Mohammed has yet to win. However, Proxy, who finished fifth last year, also was Godolphin’s first starter in the Pegasus since the race was refashioned from the Donn Handicap in 2017.
The Brad Cox-trained First Mission is the 7-2 second choice in the field of 12, which is led by 9-5 favorite National Treasure, last year’s Preakness Stakes (G1) winner.
First Mission, a son of Godolphin’s Darley America stallion and 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, comes into the Pegasus as the least experienced horse, having raced only five times, all last year.
Unraced as a 2-year-old, First Mission captured Keeneland’s Lexington (G3) in his third start last year but then was scratched from the Preakness with a minor issue. First Mission returned sixth months later to win a Keeneland allowance race before dropping a nose decision in the Clark (G2) to fellow Pegasus entrant Trademark Nov. 24 at Churchill Downs.
“He’s still a horse that doesn’t have a whole lot of experience,” Michael Banahan, Godolphin USA’s director of bloodstock, said. “He had that long break and then ran against [Trademark], who loves Churchill and has plenty of hardened experience. He probably learned a lot from the race that day. We were probably disappointed not to the win the race but happy with how the horse ran. Since the Clark, we earmarked the Pegasus.
“There are nice horses in there,” he added. “We go in there optimistic we’ll be able to compete with those horses. We like him and think he has plenty of upside. This will tell us the story if our lofty sights for him are correct or if we need to rein them in.”
Banahan acknowledged it was frustrating to miss last year’s Preakness and other marquee 3-year-old stakes.
“We’re on the doorstep of a classic and would probably have been close to being the favorite in the race or very close to it,” he said. “We thought he’d run a big race in there. There are only three classics that come around every year, and we haven’t won too many. Yeah, it was frustrating at the time. But we all wear long pants and we have to roll with the punches a little bit and come back and try and regroup and do the best we can.
“It wasn’t anything major [that sidelined First Mission], just sort of juvenile issues more than anything. We figured at the time that if we needed to give him time off, then let’s give him the [extra] time off and come back as a bigger, stronger version of himself.”
While Godolphin has always commanded respect wherever it runs horses, its staggering numbers the past few years show Sheikh Mohammed’s increased emphasis on American racing – developing and keeping horses here rather than shipping them to Dubai. The expanded American operation has led North America in purse earnings and graded-stakes victories the past three years, including last year’s $17.27 million and 27, respectively.
“Powerhouse stable,” said Cox, whose Godolphin-owned horses have included two-time champion Essential Quality. “Pretty easy to see that when you see the leaderboards and the stats they put up. They’re obviously a world-class operation, all class to deal with, great team to work with in America headed by Michael Banahan and Dan Pride. I really just enjoy working with those guys.
“First Mission came in rated as one of their better colts,” he added. “He was one that just wasn’t quite ready for what we were asking him to do [as a 2-year-old], so we gave him some time off. He came back in the fall and marched forward. Now he’s grown up mentally and physically.”
Godolphin’s two-time Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) winner Cody’s Wish is a solid favorite to be crowned 2023 Horse of the Year. Racing’s most poignant story of 2023 was Hall of Famer Bill Mott-trainee’s special relationship with Cody Dorman, who was born with Wolf–Hirschhorn syndrome and confined to a wheelchair while communicating through a digital tablet. Cody died from a medical event while returning home from the Breeders’ Cup after watching his namesake’s last career race before joining Godolphin’s Darley America stallion band.
Godolphin also has Kentucky Oaks (G1) heroine and three-time Grade 1 winner Pretty Mischievous as the front-runner for the 3-year-old filly championship, with Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) winner Master of the Seas a finalist for champion male turf horse.
“We have some stiff competition in there,” Banahan said of the Eclipse Awards. “But that would be a fantastic way to start the year. We had a super year last year, a special year. I think we won 12 Grade 1 races, following on 2022 and 2021, which were unbelievable years as well. We’ve been very lucky riding the crest of a wave for the last couple of years. We’d like to continue to ride that for another year or however long we can. Hopefully a horse like First Mission can jump up there and replace our stellar horses from the last couple of years, where Cody’s Wish and Proxy sort of led the charge in the older-horse division.
“We’re very grateful the boss has given us the opportunity to have the quality of these horses in the States to race under the Godolphin banner,” he added. “I suppose our broodmare band has become more and more dirt-centric than it was 20 years ago, when we were trying to feed the European stable more so. As we’ve gotten a bigger stable the last 10 years in America, it’s really a stand-alone, independent version of Godolphin for just America. We’re getting those results now.”
Cox also has a vested interest in the Eclipse Awards, with Juddmonte Farms’ Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) winner Idiomatic the overwhelming favorite to be voted champion older filly or mare. Cox himself is a finalist for outstanding trainer, an honor he won in 2020 and 2021.
Story by Jennie Rees