HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Neither a blustery wind nor a wide post would deter the 2017 Horse of the Year as his racing career came to a rousing conclusion late Saturday afternoon at Gulfstream Park.
As daylight waned at the South Florida track, Gun Runner defeated his 11 rivals and took down the $7 million prize as the winner of the second annual Pegasus World Cup Invitational.
The even money favorite achieved what last year’s Horse of the Year, California Chrome, failed to do in winning the world’s richest horse race. The victory capped off a brilliant career for the son of Candy Ride. He finished with five straight victories in Grade 1 races for trainer Steve Asmussen under jockey Florent Geroux.
The colossal winner’s share brought Gun Runner’s career earnings to $17,988,500, second all-time behind last year’s winner Arrogate. Gun Runner will head off to his next career in the breeding shed. He will stand at Three Chimneys Farm for a 2018 season breeding fee of $70,000.
The 5-year-old chestnut horse broke from his outside post and settled in behind Collected off his right flank going into the first turn and tracked him throughout the backstretch. He made his move as they rounded the far turn and put Collected away. West Coast split Collected and Giant Expectations and a two-horse race emerged.
West Coast, the Baffert-trainee and reigning 3-year-old champion was making the first start of his 4-year-old campaign. He challenged the champ at the top of the stretch, but was repelled by Gun Runner as he roared down the stretch in front of the Gulfstream grandstand.
As the sun set beyond the Gulfstream oval, the racing faithful on hand bestowed their gratitude in the way of a prolonged cheer for the retiring champion.
The Breeders’ Cup Classic winner once again dazzled a nationally televised audience with his versatile running style in capturing the biggest race of the 2018 season to date. The smooth striding horse pulled off the Classic-Pegasus double, mimicking the feat achieved by Arrogate 12 months ago.
“It’s the cherry on the top, this one,” said Asmussen. “This race, the world’s richest horse race after him being named Horse of the Year on Thursday night. For him to be able to go out on top and go back to his next career with everybody feeling the way that we have, and it’s built up to this point. I’m just so proud of the whole team and happy for them,” said ASmussen.
Gun Runner returned $4.20 to his backers for the win, $3 to place and $2.80 to show. West Coast, last year’s 3-year-old champion paid $4 for place and $3.2 to show, collecting $1.6 million.
Hometown hero Gunnevera paid $4.80 to show and completed a $2 trifecta that paid $11 and received $1.3 million for his third-place effort. Longshot Fear the Cowboy completed the superfecta and earned $1 million on the day.
Gun Runner completed the nine furlong trek in 1:47.41, finishing ahead of West Coast by 2 1/2-lengths.
West Coast jockey Javier Castellano is one person that is excited that Gun Runner is retiring. “I don’t have to deal with him anymore, I’m glad he’s out of the way and now I can step up a little bit,” said Castellano.
The race could be the passing of the torch from Gun Runner to West Coast, who looks to be much bigger and stronger than he was as a 3-year-old. Castellano wouldn’t let Gun Runner out of his sights for the entire race, riding up and challenging him at the quarter pole.
“I followed Gun Runner every single step of the race,” said Castellano. “I thought I had him when I was getting closer to him at the quarter pole. I tried to surprise him, but when he saw my horse, he just took off. Those two horses are the best two horses in the country. I was proud of the way my horse ran,” he said.
Gun Runner overcame the outside No. 10 post, a post that has proved difficult to win from going nine furlongs over the Gulfstream surface. According to Twinspires’ Ed DeRosa, since 2006 horses from the 10-post at Gulfstream have won less than 6 percent of the time.
Asmussen joked at the post race press conference that he received a text from assistant trainer Scott Blasi from the post position draw describing Gun Runner's post that read, “Perfect, he drew better than he drew last year.” Gun Runner was forced to miss last year’s race due to a quarantine at his Fair Grounds Racetrack home base.
The win was the icing on a tremendous career for Gun Runner. “A fairy tale ending to a beautiful story,” said Asmussen.
Geroux, who became a U.S. citizen on Friday extolled the virtues of his mount. “This feeling is hard to describe, it’s a dream come true. We wanted the horse to prove that the Breeder’s Cup and all of last year was not a fluke and the horse was there, in only one word, the horse was unbeatable,” said Geroux.
The race, the brainchild of Gulfstream Park owner Frank Stronach, featured 12 stakeholders each paying a $1 million for a gate in the race. Stronach added $4 million to the purse to make it a $16 million race.
Total all-sources handle on the Pegasus day card was $41,983,881, an increase of 4.49 percent eclipsing last year’s Pegasus World Cup day total of $40,217,924.
The Pegasus is a positive for racing, for the second year in a row it kept some of the older horses in training to contest for the big purse. With not much going on during the Saturday between the Super Bowl and Championship Sunday, it has the perfect day for horse racing to shine earlier in the year.
Racing now heads down the Derby trail and the prep season leading into the spring to see which 3-year-old will attempt to take down the Triple Crown, starting with the First Saturday of May.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.