View From The Eighth Pole: A Classic Case Of Redemption

by | 11.07.2017 | 2:25pm
Gun Runner (Candy Ride) wins the Breeders' Cup Classic (Matt Wooley/EquiSport Photos)

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.

  • David Worley

    Good story. I’m curious if anyone knows how old Steve was when his family left South Dakota?

  • McGov

    Steve did a great job with this horse. Looks like this team is better from that experience re PETA.

    • Minneola

      Yes, he did an outstanding job with Gun Runner. And, I would hope that not only his team but all trainers learned a valuable lesson from that experience.

  • Tom Davis

    Another well written article Ray. You paint a picture that the reader can envision.

  • Gotchagold

    Enjoyed your story Ray. Steve has always been polite and friendly when I would see him in passing on Haskell day. I always liked seeing him win. Watching him celebrate after the Classic, was fun. I imagined he looked the way I would react if I was ever lucky enough to have such a horse and win such a race. Gun Runner was his golden symbol of his redemption.

  • Chad

    Beach Boys had it going on. It was just as fun to watch Asmussen’s box as the race!

  • Ben Hudson

    How old was Steve when his family left South Dakota?

    I took a photo of Steve when he was 12 years old and put it on the cover of the September 1978
    cover of TRACK Magazine. He was a groom for his mother (Sis, the trianer) and dad (Keith, the rider) and they had just won the $377,297 Rainbow Futurity at Ruidoso with Vespero and he was leading the gelding back to the barn from the test barn. The Asmussens had been living in Texas for 8 or 10 years at that time. I would guess Steve is almost Texas-bred. Lots of good horsemen in his pedigree.

  • Genellen

    Great piece, Ray.

    To Arrogate, I say: Take heart. I still cringe when I see the finish of the Sunday Silence/Easy Goer BC, which that year happened to be at EG’s least favorite track, Churchill Downs.

    Gun Runner didn’t just drop in on us from nowhere. He worked his way up through his campaigns and that’s what earns fans. And maybe that “rabbit’s foot” horseshoe stuck in his tail in the Whitney DID bring him some luck. It was cool and funny to see, and so was Steve’s reaction after the win Saturday.

    • Tinky

      Um, no. The BC was run at Gulfstream, not Churchill Downs.

      Having said that, the tight turns certainly did favor SS.

      • Tom Davis

        Not get off the Gun Runner article, but I read a few articles back in the Easy Goer days that he had a bum knee that was inhibiting his advancing his position in a race on the turns.He had to wait for a straightaway. Thus his strong finish at GP in the BC Classic. He handled Belmont Park easily because of its sweeping turns.

        • Tango F

          I thought it was his ankles, but he obviously had some nagging issue that hindered him in the turns, where the torque on those joints is accentuated. He sure was a classy horse

        • dan gable

          If JD Bailey (or half dozen others) had ridden Easy Goer, at the very least, he would have won the series with Sunday Silence. Also, have to Give Gun Runner a lot of credit. I thought Collected would run him to the ground setting it up for West Coast. GR showed a lot of class pulling away.

          • Tinky

            I would say that both speculations (Tom’s and Dan’s) are wrong. Easy Goer had ankles – big, juicy ankles. I do not believe that knee problems played any role in his losses, though I can certainly ask Shug when I next see him.

            EG was also a very large, long-striding horse. Pat Day, who as an aside was not my favorite “great” rider, was perfectly suited to the horse. Easy Goer simply couldn’t accelerate around tighter turns, as he would become unbalanced, and no other rider could have changed that.

            Day was, and continues to be unfairly vilified by those who don’t understand the above. Sunday Silence was far more agile, and used that advantage on the turns to prove his superiority under typical American racing conditions.

            Easy Goer’s Belmont performance was his most impressive because he was able to extend himself throughout the race. Had he raced in Europe, and handled the turf equally well, there’s no telling how great he might have been, as there are easy turns and even straight 10f. races, etc.

          • Tom Davis

            I would like to know what Shug has to say about EG. And why his last race was in July of his 4yo year.

          • Tinky

            I’ll find out, though please be patient, as I will be away from NY and FL for a while now.

          • Jay

            A chip in his right front ankle necessitated his retirement.

  • lisa

    I have always been a fan of Steve A.I was so happy for him & his reaction on Gun Runner ‘s win was priceless!

    • Yes every peice of steve was verry happy. It was fun to see his reaction and exciement

  • Always Curious

    Thank you for this fine piece Ray! I will use it as a link for other people as a balanced piece on the current state of affairs.

  • Birdy2

    Great story, Ray. I’m really, really happy for Steve. As I’ve said before, I like him as a person and admire his work ethic — always have — based on how he treated me and how hard I watched him work in the AMs. I’m oats-hay-and water; he’s not, nor are most; irrelevant at the moment. PS: I love the wild hair, makes him look like a Viking crab boat captain with perfect teeth.

    • Annie Mae

      Your PS make me LOL!

  • NMBird

    Enjoyed this piece! Also, I love the white bridle on the big Gun…very sharp and it color coordinates with Steve A’s hair, too!!! Lol!!

  • Bo Mitchell

    Got news for you Ray!! The Love Fest stills goes on with California Chrome from the highs to the lows over 6 years and one hell of a resume that very few horses have! He showed what kind of metal he was made of!! Where is the other horse now?? 4 big races and gone…. Go Gun Runner Go!! God Bless You safe and sound in your final race..

  • discopartner

    Gun Runner the Great! A classic race horse who was able to stretch his very fast speed to beat a good front runner and an array of closers. The sport needs more Gun Runners.

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