QUITE THE JOURNEY FOR HARPERS FIRST RIDE

Between them, jockey Angel Cruz and trainer Claudio Gonzalez have exactly zero Grade 1 wins. That could change – in a big way – Saturday when the duo will team up with Harpers First Ride in the Grade 1, $3 million Pegasus World Cup.

Harpers First Ride, a Maryland-bred son of Paynter, is 10-1 on the morning line.

“I’m so happy. It’s going to be my first time riding in a big race like this,” Cruz said, adding, “It’s a dream come true.”

Cruz won two graded stakes in 2016, including the Grade 1 Darley Alcibiades with Dancing Rags, but had been blanked in graded company since until October, when he steered Harpers First Ride to a mild upset in the Grade 3 Pimlico Special. Cruz won 67 races in 2020, with purse earnings of more than $2.7 million.

Cruz teamed up with Harpers First Ride in July, winning an allowance at Laurel Park. After two out-of-town starts – which necessitated using different jockeys because of Covid-related restrictions – Cruz had the mount again in the Deputed Testamony Stakes September 5.

That netted them a win – Harpers First Ride’s first in stakes company. Racing exclusively in stakes company in his last five starts, Harpers First Ride and Cruz have teamed up for four wins and a second. The lone defeat, after a wide journey, came to the talented Monday Morning Qb in the Maryland Million Classic.

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“He’s a classy horse,” Gonzalez said of Harpers First Ride. “He does everything right.”

Which may not have been obvious when Gonzalez first acquired Harpers First Ride. He claimed the gelding, then three, out of the runner’s maiden score for $30,000. And talk about lightly regarded: the Sagamore Farm homebred was, at 12-1 that day, the third-longest shot in the field of eight.

That was in September 2019, and since then, Harpers First Ride has won nine of 14 starts and earned over half a million dollars, mostly in the colors of Gonzalez’s own MCA Racing. Since his last start, a win in Laurel Park’s Native Dancer Stakes, Harpers First Ride has been privately purchased by GMP Stables LLC, Cypress Creek Equine and Arnold Bennewith.

All of which represents a pretty nice return on investment for Gonzalez, Maryland’s leading trainer last year after a season in which he posted 154 wins overall. He runners earned $5.2 million.

“You know, he surprises me every day,” Gonzalez said of Harpers First Ride. “Every day, he goes better, and after the race, he comes back like nothing.”

While Harpers First Ride has shown the ability to lead or stalk, he doesn’t figure to make the front in Saturday’s nine-furlong contest. That will likely belong to the other Maryland-bred in the race, the ultra-speedy Knicks Go, who won the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile in front-running fashion. Knicks Go was named Top Midlantic-bred of 2020 in the polling released January 21, with Harpers First Ride second.

But neither Gonzalez nor Cruz professes to be worried.

“My horse can be right there,” the trainer said.

“Gulfstream is a fast track,” Cruz added. “I think he’s gong to like it because, a lot of speed, you know, and I think it’s going to play out for him good.”

Of course, this is no easy task. The field includes four millionaires and three Grade 1 winners.

But Cruz has confidence – in both the horse and the trainer.

“Claudio, he has him ready,” Cruz said with a smile. “We’re going ready to the Pegasus.”

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