There was little doubt going into Saturday’s Grade 1 Woodward Stakes at Saratoga that Gun Runner was the prohibitive favorite; the likely winner; and the most impressive Thoroughbred on the East Coast of the United States.
Today, there is no doubts.
Gun Runner — the 4YO son of the Lane’s End stallion Candy Ride — galloped off to an easy, impressive, dominating, defining 10 1/4-length victory for his third butt-kicking victory in a row since arriving back in the States after his second-place run against Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup.
Previously, Gun Runner had run away to equally easy victories in the G1 Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs and the G1 Whitney Stakes at Saratoga. But on Saturday, against a nondescript group of wannabes, Gun Runner would have kicked dirt in the faces of his competition.
Yet, none of them could get close enough to him for the dirt to smash their respective faces.By the time the race was over, Gun Runner had gunned down any doubts about his ability, and had gunned his engines to a victory in a time of 1:47.43 for the 1 1/8-miles Stakes.
Trainer Steve Asmussen was as impressed with his prized pupil as the crowd jammed into Saratoga. As the colt returned to the winner’s circle and celebration, the fans stood and cheered in respect, and, perhaps, awe.
“He stepped up. He was carrying everybody, all of us under these circumstances,” said Asmussen. “We all know what’s happened over the past couple of weeks. This was our last race heading into the Breeders’ Cup and I thought it went as well as we could have hoped. If we can get out to California in good shape we’ll hope to finish off the year.
“He increased his margin to the wire and proved his worth,” he added. “The game plan was to leave him in (jockey) Florent’s (Geroux) hands. We worked him off many a horse in the mornings, knowing that he’s very comfortable in that position, but with Todd (Pletcher) having two talented horses in there, you did expect him to send one. It was expected and Gun Runner handled it like he’s supposed to and, with his experience at this level, proved dominant.”
Sent off by the betting public at odds of 1-5, Gun Runner was headed by Neolithic soon after the start as jockey Jose Ortiz sent the first of Pletcher’s horses along the rail to open up by two lengths while Rally Cry, the other entry for trainer Todd Pletcher’s barn, bookended Gun Runner through the early stages. Discreet Lover chased the pace along the rail as War Story sat to his outside with just five lengths separating the field down the backside.
The field of five ran in number order through a quarter-mile in a quick 23.20 seconds and a half-mile in 46.56 as Neolithic still held his two-length advantage over Gun Runner. Approaching the three-quarter mark, Geroux began to let the Winchell Thoroughbreds color bearer roll, and was now just a length as Rally Cry and the trailing duo were asked for run with 1:10.45 now spent during the running.
At the top of the stretch, Gun Runner was in control, and while Geroux drew the whip lefthanded, but never used it, opting to peer at the infield video board instead as the advantage grew. Rally Cry was 10 ¼ lengths behind as the runner-up under the wire while Neolithic held on for third. War Story and Discreet Lover completed the order of finish.
“I kind of expected one of them [the two entries by Pletcher] to go, I didn’t know which one,” Geroux said. “My horse broke so sharp I could pretty much do anything I wanted with him, he broke beautifully and from there when he starts leading on his left foot he is very strong. From the three-eighths pole I just knew it was a matter of how many lengths I am going to win. I was just hanging on. That is it.
“That was better than the Whitney,” he continued. “Stronger. Faster. Overall, he is just getting better and that was four weeks and he is doing good on the track. And I don’t think he is 100 percent cranked up yet. I really do think he has another step forward with him.”
Now, though, Gun Runner will have one more try this year — the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar on the first Saturday in November. And, in that one, he will face much tougher competition than he has faced since he took on Arrogate in Dubai.
That field is expected to include the likes of Arrogate, who has been beaten twice in a row at the San Diego racetrack since his return from Dubai; Collected, who recently defeated Arrogate in the Pacific Classic; Accelerate, who defeated Arrogate in the San Diego Handicap before finishing third in the Pacific Classic; West Coast, the impressive winner of the Travers Stakes just a week ago for trainer Bob Baffert; Cupid, another talented runner from the barn of Baffert; and, perhaps, a host of 3-year-olds that have taken turns beating each other this year, but never impressing two times in a row.
It will be a different story. But the question will be whether or not it will be a different storyline.
“I think everything culminates with the Breeders’ Cup Classic,” Asmussen noted. “That is why he is in training this year and that has been the goal and continues to be the goal. We will do our best to get him there in as good a shape as possible. If we are fortunate to have success there everything else will take care of itself.”