It was billed as one of the most competitive editions of the Breeders' Cup Classics in recent memory, but Gun Runner didn't bother reading the hype. The 4-year-old son of Candy Ride vied for the lead with Collected through at least 10 furlongs, but when Florent Geroux asked his mount the question in the stretch it was all Gun Runner. On Saturday evening just before sun set at Del Mar, the Steve Asmussen-trainee finished 2 1/4 lengths clear of Collected at the wire.
“I think he's better today than he ever was,” said Asmussen, who has now won a total of six Breeders' Cup races. ““It's a good team and he's an incredible horse. Incredible horse. Everyone is part of the team and they did a phenomenal job. Scott (Blasi, assistant trainer), Angel (Garcia, exercise rider), Florent (Geroux, jockey), the owners… we did the right things at the right time and all that made it special. What an awesome feeling this is. Florent has the ultimate confidence in Gun Runner and he rode Gun Runner. It's all part of the process. We had discussed what we'd see (in the race) through the day and I told him to 'ride Gun Runner.' I'm the lucky trainer of the Horse of the Year.”
Owned by Ron Winchell and Three Chimneys Farm, Gun Runner completed 1 1/4 miles over the fast track in 2:01.29, paying $6.80 as the second choice. Collected finished second and West Coast third for Bob Baffert, while War Story got up for fourth. Post-time favorite and defending champion Arrogate finished in a dead head for fifth with Gunnevera after ducking in at the start.
Every one of the 37,692 fans in the grandstand had their eyes trained on the starting gate, every heart beating just a bit faster with the anticipation of an epic Breeders' Cup Classic. It was the rematch of Dubai World Cup champion Arrogate and runner-up Gun Runner, and each horse was steady at 2-1 on the tote board. Arrogate was slightly favored over his rival, but trainer Bob Baffert knew right after the start that his big gray colt wasn't going to fire.
“He's like a pitcher who can't find the plate,” said Baffert of Arrogate. “Gun Runner is a really good horse and he ran a great race. My other horses ran great. I hate to make any excuses for the big horse (Arrogate), but he's just not the horse he was. He struggles over this track, but when I got him up to Santa Anita, I thought maybe…When he broke, he broke flat-footed and broke in and he weaved in. He lost a lot of momentum there. We were
hoping to really send him away from there. I don't know what happened to him. I don't know if it's this track or what. He's just losing interest and I think that's what it is. He's run so many incredible races that I really think he's just losing interest. That's what it is. It's time (for him to retire).”
Arrogate broke very awkwardly toward the rail from his innermost post position, and jockey Mike Smith had to go to work early to get any kind of tactical position in the race. He had his head up a bit, likely trying to avoid the kickback in his face as he was third from last in the earliest stages.
“He just doesn't like this track,” said a dejected Mike Smith. “For whatever reason, I hate to say it, he has shown it time and time again and showed it today. (His bad start) is what he's been doing every time he runs here. When he's on his A race, he's one of the fastest horses we have ever seen. He just won't run over here. I have tried to talk myself into thinking he would. He has just showed me time and time again that he wouldn't.”
Gun Runner, meanwhile, broke extremely well from post five and went right for the front. One of Baffert's four-horse contingent in the Classic, Collected was quick to keep the winner company as the pair flew down the stretch for the first time. Inching out to a half-length advantage around the clubhouse turn, Gun Runner clocked a first quarter in a sharp :22.50.
“We all watched races all week,” Asmussen said. “22 and 3 on the lead on the inside hasn't had a lot of success this week, but I guess it wasn't Gun Runner in that spot on the previous ones.”
Geroux was able to slow the pace slightly around that turn and into the backstretch, turning in a second quarter mile in 23.89 seconds as the half ticked by in :46.31. Behind those two leaders by a widening margin, West Coast and Churchill were moving in a joint third ahead of War Story and Pavel. Arrogate had started to advance slowly, and he continued to move up inch by inch down the backstretch.
“My horse was very comfortable right there, and flopping his ear back and forth,” Geroux said. “It shows a sign that he was relaxing nicely for me while going quick. But he's just a fast horse. From there I just tried to keep him as happy as I could.”
After three-quarters in 1:10.50 and a mile in 1:35.03, Collected started to encroach on Gun Runner's half-length lead. West Coast was moving well, but was at least three lengths back in third, and War Story was forced wide but looked ready to make a run in the lane. Gunnevera was the next closest, and Arrogate came grinding up alongside him as the field turned for home.
Geroux kept Gun Runner a few paths off the rail in the stretch, and as the horse eyed Collected at the three-sixteenths pole it looked like the race could go either way. It took only a matter of strides for Gun Runner to decide to burst away from his rival, and he did so in convincing fashion. At the wire, Gun Runner and Geroux were 2 1/4 lengths ahead of Martin Garcia and Collected. Geroux pumped his fist in the air as Gun Runner carved his name into the history books.
“This (win) means a lot,” said the Frenchman. “It's the biggest win of my career. It's the big race with Horse of the Year on the line. I'm glad he was the best horse.
“I never had a connection like that with another horse before. You know, you ride a thousand horses a year, and this one, there is just something. I don't know. Just a crazy connection. I'm not a big believer in that, but I do believe that now.”
West Coast never threatened the leaders but was a clear third, and War Story flattened out late to finish fourth. Gunnevera and Arrogate battled the length of the stretch and hit the wire in unison for a dead heat fifth-place finish. The remaining order of finish was: Churchill, Mubtaahij, War Decree, Pavel, and Win the Space.
“But he has done so much,” Baffert said of Arrogate. “What he accomplished in a short period of time, the Travers win (in track and stakes record time), beating California Chrome (in the 2016 Classic), winning the Pegasus and the way he won in Dubai. You have to give Gun Runner credit. He laid it down and he took a lot of heat. Collected is a really good horse. We know how good he is.”
Bred in Kentucky by Besilu Stables, Gun Runner was privately purchased to be the first equine partnership between Ron Winchell and Three Chimneys Farm. He is out of the graded stakes-winning Giant Causeway mare Quiet Giant, bred and raced by the late Edward Evans. Quiet Giant was purchased out of the Evans dispersal at the 2011 Keeneland November mixed sale, bringing $3 million from Besilu's Benjamin Leon. Gun Runner is her first foal.
As a sophomore he won both the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds before running third in the Kentucky Derby. Gun Runner ended that season with a second-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile and a big win in the G1 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs.
In 2017, Gun Runner had to skip the Pegasus World Cup due to a quarantine situation at the Fair Grounds. Instead he was sent to Oaklawn Park, where Geroux guided him to an easy win in the G3 Razorback as a prep for Meydan. In the Dubai World Cup, Gun Runner looked the winner in the stretch until a monster run from Arrogate saw him defeated at the wire.
Returning to the U.S., Gun Runner ran out a three-race win streak in the Stephen Foster, Whitney and Woodward, the latter by 10 1/4 lengths. The Breeders' Cup Classic win improves Gun Runner's record to 11 wins from 17 starts, with three seconds and two thirds. The colt has now earned $8,988,500, and all signs from the connections indicate that they will aim for the $16 million Pegasus World Cup in January.
“The way that he has taken his races, the way that he's coming out of them, me and Scott were just marveling at him this week how strong he looks schooling this week,” said Asmussen. “That's a lot of travel this year, lot of fast races, and I think he's better today than he's ever been. What a blessing it is to have this horse to share with great people, great team, and great family.”
Gun Runner will fly back to Churchill Downs on Monday.
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