DEL MAR, Calif. – On a picture perfect day at old Del Mar, Gun Runner staked his claim as the best horse in the land with a stunning performance in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Gun Runner, the 4-year-old colt out of the Steve Asmussen barn, defeated last year’s Classic winner Arrogate and three other horses from the Bob Baffert barn to claim the $6 million Classic on Saturday evening.
The chestnut colt dazzled the 37,692 race fans attending the 34th Breeders’ Cup world championships held at the Oceanside track in suburban San Diego for the first time.
Arrogate, the defending Classic winner of 2016, dead-heated for fifth with Gunnevera, after breaking inward at the start and never threatening the leaders. The win by Gun Runner avenged a loss to his rival in the $10 million Dubai World Cup in March, when Arrogate came out of the clouds to overtake him in deep stretch.
With the shadows of the Del Mar grandstand sprawled over the California track, the son of Candy Ride went head to head with Post Time selection Collected, circling the track together before he put the Baffert-trainee away in the stretch, winning by 2 1/4-lengths.
The Classic win added $3.3 million to Gun Runner’s coffers, stretching his career earnings to just under the $9 million mark. Gun Runner completed the mile-and-a-quarter trek in 2.01.29, after completing fast, early fractions of 22.50 and 46.31. It was his first career win at the classic distance, erasing any pre-race doubts that he could handle a mile-and-a-quarter.
Gun Runner, the second choice behind Arrogate, returned $6.80 to his backers for the win, $4.40 to place and $3.20 to show. Collected paid $5.60 for place and $4 to show. West Coast completed a $2 trifecta that paid $129, and paid $3.60 to show.
The Pick-6 paid a whopping $388,423.60, on a day when long shots ruled the day. Only one favorite, Woodbine Mile winner World Approval, won a Breeders’ Cup race out of the nine championship races on the card.
Jockey Florent Geroux won his first Classic aboard Gun Runner and the fourth Breeders Cup race of his fledgling career. He is starting to come in to his own as a rider and had a tremendous year aboard Gun Runner, guiding him to five wins in six starts.
Geroux took an early lead, but was pressured by Collected on the backstretch and didn’t succumb as he rounded the far turn. “He’s just a fast horse. I was just trying to keep him happy on the backside,” said Geroux. “From the quarter pole it was a two-horse race between us and Collected and the best horse won.”
Trainer Steve Asmussen won his second Breeders’ Cup Classic, the last coming in 2007 when Curlin won in the slop at Monmouth Park. The shaggy-haired trainer who entered Racing’s Hall of Fame in 2016, was ecstatic with his colt’s performance.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of Gun Runner,” said Asmussen. “What a stage for him to show that he’s the best. With all of the biases on the inside of the track against him, he took it to them.”
The win should vault Gun Runner to a Horse of the Year title for owners Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm. Already atop the weekly NTRA standings after Arrogate’s losses at Del Mar this summer, he proved to be a force starting with a dominating seven-length win in the Steven Foster at Churchill Downs in June.
Asmussen took the superstar colt to Saratoga this summer and Gun Runner powered to wins in the older handicap races at the venerable race course, winning the Whitney and Woodward by a combined 15 1/4-lengths.
The race was projected to be a duel between the winner and Arrogate, with the winner claiming Horse of the Year honors. Instead, the duel was with a game Collected, who won the Pacific Classic here at Del Mar in August for Baffert.
After completing one of the most dramatic four race stretches in the history of thoroughbred horse racing, last year’s 3-year-old champ Arrogate dropped his third straight race over the Del Mar dirt track.
Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith cited the bad break inward as a big issue early on forcing him to take the big roan colt behind the first group of horses out of the gate. “He broke very awkward,” said Smith. “He just can’t seem to get ahold of this racetrack. I’m lost for words,” said the Hall of Famer.
While he couldn’t complete a back-to-back sweep of the Classic, he’s still heading to Union Avenue in Saratoga Springs the minute he’s eligible for the Hall of Fame.
The son of Unbridled’s Song would have joined Tiznow (2000-2001) as the only back-to-back winner of the Classic. The loss ended the three race Classic streak for trainer Bob Baffert, who won the last three all with 3-year-olds.
The two will not square off again early next year in the second annual $16 million Pegasus Cup at Gulfstream Park in South Florida, a race contrived by Frank Stronach last year. Arrogate appears be headed to stud after the disappointing finish to an otherwise otherwordly career. There is a good chance that Gun Runner will conclude his career in the Pegasus before heading to the breeding shed at Three Chimneys Farm.
The Breeders’ Cup win by Gun Runner ended a three-year win streak by 3-year-olds in the Classic, and ended any doubts of who was the best horse in 2017.
Let’s hope we get to see him in Florida in January to shine for one more race in the sun.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.