After GUN RUNNER got whipped 15 lengths by Arrogate in the 2016 Travers Stakes at Saratoga, trainer Steve Asmussen was in no hurry to run his three-year-old in the Breeders’ Cup Classic that autumn.
Eight months later, after Gun Runner was beaten 2 1-4 lengths by Arrogate in the $10 million Dubai World Cup, Asmussen felt his horse was making progress toward the Classic - the main objective coming into 2017 - and Arrogate.
“I got on the plane leaving Dubai knowing I was a lot closer to where I wanted to be than I was after the Travers,” Asmussen said earlier this summer. “It was the consolation [for losing the World Cup]. When I was flying back, I thought about it a lot: ‘We’re not there yet, but we’re a hell of a lot closer.’ ”
Now, on the eve of the $6 million Classic, Asmussen believes his horse is on par, if not ahead of Arrogate. A lot has changed since that March night in Dubai when Arrogate overcame a disastrous break to rally from last and blow past Gun Runner in the stretch to win the World Cup. Gun Runner has won three consecutive Grade 1 stakes by a combined 22 1-2 lengths. Arrogate has lost his last two starts, both at Del Mar.
“I know whose side I’m on and I’m feeling very good where we’re at right now,” Asmussen said when the Breeders’ Cup pre-entries were announced on Wednesday. “What has happened since the World Cup is surprising to a lot of people. We’re just trying to get to the Classic in the best shape possible. It’s a stage to prove where Gun Runner’s at.”
Last year, at Santa Anita, Gun Runner raced in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile where he finished second to Sheikh Hamdan’s Tamarkuz. In six starts since, Gun Runner has five wins and the second in the World Cup.
Asmussen said he noticed during the winter how quickly Gun Runner would recover from his workouts and even his victory in the Grade 3 Razorback at Oaklawn Park in February, which was used as a prep for the World Cup.
“We went over with a lot of horse,” Asmussen said. “He’s very healthy-minded, wonderful physically. I think pedigree-wise, who he is physically, he’s a stronger, better horse at 4 than he was at 3.”
Gun Runner, owned by Ron Winchell and Three Chimneys Farm, backed that theory up with the way he ran when he returned to the U.S. this spring and summer. On June 17, Gun Runner rolled to a seven-length victory in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs. In two starts this summer at Saratoga, he won the Grade 1 Whitney by 5 1-4 lengths on Aug. 5 and came back four weeks later to win the Grade 1 Woodward by 10 1-4 lengths on Sept. 2.
Gun Runner’s final time of 1:47.43 for 1 1-8 miles was the fastest of 12 runnings of the Woodward held at Saratoga. It was the fastest Woodward run since Ghostzapper ran 1:46.38 at Belmont Park in 2004. Ghostzapper won that year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Florent Geroux, Gun Runner’s jockey, said the Woodward was better than the Whitney and then added this: “I don’t think he’s 100-percent cranked up yet. I really do think we have another step forward with him. We’re going to need one against Arrogate.”
Asmussen, who won the 2007 Classic with Curlin, sent Gun Runner from the East to Southern California well in advance of the Breeders’ Cup to get used to the time change and the climate change. Gun Runner trained at Santa Anita Park before he was scheduled to ship to Del Mar on Friday 27th October. He will have one breeze at Del Mar.
Gun Runner has never won at 1 1-4 miles, the distance of the Classic, but Asmussen believes his horse is better equipped to handle the distance at age 4. As for not having raced at Del Mar, well, Asmussen didn’t seem to concerned about that either.
“He has accepted quite a few racetracks and he has traveled well,” Asmussen said.
If Asmussen has a concern it’s that Bob Baffert, the trainer of Arrogate, has three other horses scheduled to run in the Classic. That trio includes Collected and West Coast, both horses who have the speed to make things miserable for Gun Runner, who is a forwardly-placed runner.
“Hopefully, they’re all out there trying to win,” Asmussen said.