Asmussen: Gun Runner ‘Allowed To Develop’ Into Legitimate Classic Contender

Gun Runner might not have been America’s best 3-year-old last year, though he certainly was on the short list and staked a big claim as the most rugged. But the patience shown by trainer Steve Asmussen and his staff and the belief held by owners Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm has paid off big-time in 2017, where Gun Runner is one win away from being Horse of the Year.

Of course that race is Saturday’s $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, where thoroughbred racing’s two-day championships are being held at Del Mel Thoroughbred Club for the first time. There Gun Runner will face a rematch with last year’s Classic winner and 3-year-old champion, Juddmonte Farms’ Arrogate, trained by Bob Baffert, who is sending out four horses as he goes for an unprecedented fourth straight victory in the Breeders’ Cup finale.

With Gun Runner finishing second in last year’s $1 million Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, the two standout 4-year-olds have met only once and that was overseas, with Gun Runner appearing home free in the $10 Dubai World Cup before Arrogate drove past late for a 2 1/4-length victory.

“It’s obviously a very special running of the Classic,” Asmussen said Wednesday. “Very fortunate that Juddmonte and Bob have given us this opportunity to attempt to right our wrongs. It’s very (rare) for a horse to prepare and participate in the classics as a 3-year-old, continue to improve and get to this level. Ron Winchell and the Winchell team, Three Chimneys and (owner) Mr. (Goncalo) Torrealba, they’ve all had great belief in this horse, kept their egos in check, let him develop. They should be very proud of the horse they’ve allowed to develop to this stage. We say that, but we also realize who Gun Runner is, the attitude he came out of those tough races with, all of that has come together to put us in this position.”

Gun Runner and Arrogate, an unraced 2-year-old who did not run in any of last year’s Triple Crown races, went separate ways after Dubai.

Gun Runner and jockey Florent Geroux swept through three Grade 1 triumphs by a combined 22 1/2 lengths: Churchill Downs’ Stephen Foster and Saratoga’s storied Whitney and Woodward. Arrogate went 0 for 2, both at Del Mar, finishing fourth by a total of 15 1/4 lengths at 1-20 odds in the five-horse San Diego Handicap and then second by a half-length to stablemate and fellow Classic contender Collected in the Pacific Classic.

After the Pacific Classic, Gun Runner replaced Arrogate — the world’s all-time richest racehorse with earnings of $17,302,600 — atop of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s weekly poll. The two horses might have met earlier this year, but a quarantine situation at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans kept Gun Runner out of Gulfstream’s $12 million Pegasus World Cup, which Arrogate won by 4 3/4 lengths. Instead Gun Runner ran in Oaklawn’s Grade 3 Razorback Handicap as a prep for Dubai, winning by 5 3/4 lengths.

“He ran solid in Dubai, but he did get off the plane with his usual swagger and confidence,” said Asmussen, who won the 2008 Dubai World Cup with Curlin, his two-time Horse of the Year and 2017 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner. “The inner fortitude he has is amazing. He trained brilliantly for his races ever since he came back from Dubai.”

Mike Smith, Arrogate’s Hall of Fame jockey who is the all-time Breeders’ Cup leader at 25 victories and more than $34 million in purses, appreciates as much as anyone how tough it is for a horse to return from Dubai and get better from what can be a taxing journey for an American horse.

“You don’t see it often, but when you do see it, it’s something special,” Smith said of Gun Runner, who has been stabled at Churchill Downs for much of his career, now spanning a 10-3-2 mark and $5.6 million accrued in 17 starts. “He’s not a horse that we take lightly whatsoever, though we’ve been blessed to outrun him a few times. He’s a different horse, a better horse than when we beat him before. Arrogate is going to have to run his A game.”

Gun Runner, third in the Kentucky Derby behind Nyquist and eventual Preakness winner Exaggerator, won four of nine starts last year, including the Louisiana Derby and Churchill Downs’ Matt Winn and Grade 1 Clark Handicap after the Breeders’ Cup. His camp says their boy is stronger and more mature. There was another change for his 4-year-old season: Letting Gun Runner be in charge of his race tactics.

“After the Dirt Mile last year, we quit trying to be so smart and let Gun Runner be who he is, and we’ve had a lot more success with him since we have,” Asmussen said.

Gun Runner, with Louisvillian Florent Geroux his regular rider, has led most of the way in his races this year, except for the Woodward, when he raced a couple lengths behind a horse bent on having the lead. “The rhythm he’s in has been excellent and very effective, and we plan on continuing that,” Asmussen said.

Winchell told the Breeders’ Cup media team that he looks “at horses and dream big in the beginning with big hopes for their talent and then taper it back when they start running.

“With Gun Runner, we haven’t had to do that. Last year we had a choice for the Classic or Dirt Mile, and we went for the latter thinking he would improve when he got older,” he said. “He has done that and that is one of those situations where he’s always been thought of highly since Day One and that has never changed…. To win the Classic and be crowned Horse of the Year would be two huge things. You hope to get those bronze (Eclipse Award for divisional winners) statues, but to get that gold one… that puts it into context. Those are things you chase.”

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