Steve Asmussen can be wound a little tight now and then, but the good vibrations he was putting out in the days leading up to the Breeders' Cup championships at Del Mar were as laid-back and cool as a Beach Boys melody from the 1960s.
The trainer of Classic favorite Gun Runner was among a dozen trainers and jockeys participating in a “media day” event on the Wednesday before the Breeders' Cup in a trackside chalet at the top of the stretch. Asmussen was engaging and genuine, patiently taking a battery of questions from print, online and television journalists from around the world.
“What makes you think Gun Runner can beat Arrogate this time after being drubbed twice before?”
“Do you think Bob Baffert will gang up on you with his four Classic starters?”
“Can Gun Runner win at a mile and a quarter?”
“What's with the long hair?”
The South Dakota native relaxed in a director's chair and patiently answered every question, from the sublime to the ridiculous. One by one the other participating jockeys and trainers trickled out of the room. Asmussen stayed longer than anyone expected, leaving only after the media had run out of questions. He seemed to be enjoying the interaction with people he'd been testy with at times in the past.
I could almost hear the Beach Boys slowly harmonizing one of their greatest hits.
There's a world where I can go and tell my secrets to
In my room, in my room.
In this world I lock out all my worries and my fears
In my room, in my room.
A few hours later, the source of Asmussen's calm strode into Del Mar's saddling paddock for a schooling session. Gun Runner was a picture of an athlete at the top of his game, the Southern California sun dancing off his gleaming chestnut coat. The son of Candy Ride was as calm, cool and collected as the suddenly mellow 51-year-old trainer who's been by his side since before a winning debut in September 2015 at Churchill Downs in Kentucky.
Asmussen leaned back against the wall inside the saddling enclosure, speaking quietly with assistant Scott Blasi while looking at Gun Runner in admiration for all the colt had done and how he'd done it: 10 wins from 17 starts, with three seconds and two thirds, always showing up and giving his best.
He wasn't the only one impressed by the colt's appearance.
“Damn, Gun Runner looks good,” said Bob Baffert, who was inside the walking ring waiting for a horse from his barn to arrive for an afternoon race.
There was a nervous edge to Baffert's voice. He'd beaten Gun Runner twice before with Arrogate, the enigmatic gray colt who'd crashed the California Chrome love-fest in the past year with a victory over the popular California-bred in the 2016 Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita and inaugural Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park in January. Those wins by the 3-year-old champion of 2016 were bookended by dominating performances over Gun Runner in the Travers at Saratoga in August 2016 and the Dubai World Cup in March of this year.
But Arrogate had gone south since Dubai – losing twice at Del Mar in his only two subsequent starts – while Gun Runner had found his best stride, winning for fun in the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs and in the Whitney and Woodward at Saratoga.
Sometimes we expect too much from our equine heroes, asking for perfection from them when the people around them are flawed. That Asmussen and Baffert were the human protagonists of this Breeders' Cup Classic was a fitting reminder of that.
Asmussen had been to hell and back over the last four years, the result of a hidden camera expose by the animal rights group PETA that portrayed him, Blasi and the sport in a terribly unflattering light. A 2014 Hall of Fame nomination was yanked and business relationships were frayed as a result. Asmussen kept his head down, persevered and came out of the darkness with the help of loyal friends and clients, not to mention horses like Gun Runner. When the smoke from the negative PETA publicity had cleared, the Hall of Fame came calling again, inducting Asmussen in 2016.
Baffert, already a member of the Hall of Fame, had similarly gone through a dark period in 2013 with the still unexplained deaths of seven horses in his Southern California stable and a subsequent relationship with an Ohio con man who wound up going to federal prison on fraud charges. He rebounded in 2015 with a charismatic colt named American Pharoah, who ended a 37-year Triple Crown drought and became one of three consecutive Breeders' Cup Classic winners for the white-haired conditioner.
Perfection would have been Gun Runner and Arrogate going nostril to nostril at the top of the Del Mar stretch – the sun setting in the Pacific behind them – and giving us a stretch run for the ages. It was not to be.
Arrogate struggled over the Del Mar surface for the third consecutive time. It was up to two of Baffert's other runners – West Coast and Collected – to try and make a race of it, but neither could deny Gun Runner his place in Breeders' Cup history. With his 2 1/4-length win, Gun Runner nailed down the 2017 Horse of the Year title and will be the clear favorite to add to his nearly $9 million in earnings should his owners – Ron Winchell and Three Chimneys – opt to run in the $16-million Pegasus World Cup in late January.
Up in the Del Mar grandstand, as jockey Florent Geroux and Gun Runner flashed across the finish line, Asmussen let loose – whooping and hollering and hugging his family and friends in a cathartic celebration that showed just how much this horse, this race really meant.
That's my view from the eighth pole.
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