Stars Shine Bright During Churchill’s “Downs After Dark” Racing Festival

​LOUISVILLE, KY (June 18, 2017) – The stars shined bright on one of Kentucky’s most favorite homes Saturday night in Louisville. Both in a spectacular summer sky, and on the world’s most historic, iconic and entertaining racetrack.

On Saturday night, the beacons lit up the night in one of the best “Downs After Dark” programs that Churchill Downs has ever hosted.

​“What a night,” said Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen. “What a night.”

​What a night, indeed.

​The headliner of the “Light Show” going into Saturday night was scheduled to be Gun Runner, winner of over $4 million in purses and ranked as the fourth best horse in training today.

​He did not disappoint. Rocking the racing world like Bono did with U2 on Friday night at Papa John’s Stadium, just a few furlongs down the road, Gun Runner turned into a highlight, and left his opposition reeling. He ran off to a record, 7-length victory in the 36th running of the $500,000, Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap.

​For his efforts, Gun Runner earned an automatic bid to this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, to be held in November at Del Mar in San Diego.

​“It’s special to win a Grade I, but now we have our ticket punched to the Breeders’ Cup,” said Asmussen, who previously won the Stephen Foster with Horse of the Year Curlin in 2008. “We got him to the Winner’s Circle here at home and we set ourselves up for a great second-half campaign. I can’t thank our owners (Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimney’s Farm) enough. This horse is incredibly special in so many ways.”

​But on this night, he had the share the stage – and some of the limelight, too.

​In the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis Stakes, Unbridled Forever – who ran a superb third to the brilliant Beholder and Songbird in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff – made her 2017 debut a smashing one. She rolled down the stretch, with just a bit of urging from her rider Joe Rosario to win by 13/4 lengths.

​In the Grade 3 Matt Winn Stakes, the highly touted McCraken – who had been undefeated in three starts at Churchill Downs before suffering an injury and an 8th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby just a few weeks ago – returned to the winner’s circle in style. McCraken made a bold, sweeping move midway through the final turn and then roared to a 21/4 length victory.

​Oh, what a night.

​“I was loaded the entire trip around there,” said jockey Florent Geroux, who got the opportunity to guide Gun Runner around the Churchill Downs’ track. “He was doing everything so easily. This horse is truly unbelievable. He’s one of the best horses I’ve ever ridden and to put forward this type of effort after running in Dubai is so impressive. I was a bit surprised to find myself on a lone-lead but I wasn’t complaining one bit. What a horse.”

​And, what a race. On paper, it looked like Gun Runner – who entered Saturday night’s Foster with three wins and a strong second to the invincible Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup in his last four races – may be tested. There were two other legitimate “speed” horses entered, in Bird Song and Stanford. And, there was a quality deep closer in Honorable Duty.

​With all due respect to the others in the field, there would be no test, and truly no contest. Gun Runner showed why he is so good, with a powerful performance that equaled some of the best ever to lay hoof on the famed Churchill dirt.

​The 4-year-old son of Candy Ride, trained by the Hall of Famer Asmussen, ran the 11/8-mile distance in a time of 1:47.56 – the fifth-fastest running of the Stephen Foster. And, the margin set a new record, nipping Street Cry’s 61/2 length victory in 2002.

​A year ago, Gun Runner appeared to be on his way to winning the Kentucky Derby, when he made the lead in mid-stretch. On that day, he was caught and surpassed by then, the undefeated Nyquist and the fast closing Exaggerator.

​Gun Runner and his connections had to settle for what surely was a disappointing third.

​But while both Nyquist and Exaggerator are now having daily visits from girlfriends at their respective breeding farms, Gun Runner is still winning races; thrilling fans; setting records.
​He did so again on Saturday night.

​“I think it was key taking our time with this horse,” said Asmussen. “We always thought he would get better with age and he’s proving that to us right now.”

​Others, sitting on the fence and on horses behind Gun Runner, were fully impressed, as well.

​“Second best today,” said Hall of Fame rider Javier Castellano, who was aboard the second-place finisher Honorable Duty, who tried to close the gap. “The winner, I give a lot of credit. He was much the best horse in the race. Unfortunately, not much speed in the race. I thought about it before the race, the way I handicapped the race, a little more speed, I thought Stanford was gonna go and the other horse inside (Bird Song) was going to go. They let him (Gun Runner) dictate the pace, nice comfortable rhythm, nice comfortable pace. I think it didn’t help when my horse is coming from behind. I think it cost a little bit of the race.”

​Todd Pletcher, the world-travelling trainer who captured two legs of this year’s Triple Crown with two different horses (Always Dreaming in the Derby and Tapwrit in the Belmont), was impressed, as well.

​“We had no excuse,” said Pletcher, who saddled fifth-place finisher Stanford. “We tried to follow the winner around there, put a little pressure on him. Just couldn’t fire with him.”

​​

The horse broke well today,” Gaffalione said. “I had the horse inside, Dunph, going to the lead and then (Gun It) showed a little bit of speed. When I saw they were intent on going I just tried to get him back and got him to relax. He came back to me nicely and settled well down the backside. Got a little keen going into the far turn and wanted to move a little early. But I didn’t want to take too much away from him so I tried to sit as long as I could. He was waiting on horses down the lane but I kept him at task and there was plenty of horse there.”

“Mark (Casse, the trainer) and his team have done a great job,” Gaffalione said. “They’ve had a ton of confidence in this horse the whole way. It’s just an honor to be able to ride the horse. He’s just so professional, trains great and he’s a pleasure to be around.”

Tyler Gaffalione, Rode of War of Will to victory in the G2 Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds
  • Gene McLean

    Gene McLean

    Gene McLean began his professional career in 1977 as a sportswriter and columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky., and was recognized as one of the state’s best writers, winning the prestigious “Sportswriter of the Year” honor in 1985. Now the President and Publisher of The Pressbox, McLean sets ...

    Full Bio >

More From Gene McLean