Gun Runner, a horse with tremendous cruising speed and most recently the winner of the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Stakes, leads a seven-horse field in the 90th running of the Grade 1, $1.2 million Whitney Stakes at Saratoga Race Course. The Whitney also offers the winner an automatic entry into the $6 million Breeders' Cup Classic in November. However, with an intriguing set of pace scenarios, Gun Runner may not be as much of a lock as many in the public perceive him to be.
Other contenders include War Story, who shortens up in distance from a mile and a half off a strong win in the Grade 2 Brooklyn Stakes and Keen Ice, who cuts back to a shorter distance following his win in the Grade 2 Suburban Stakes last month at a mile and a quarter. Another interesting possibility might be Breaking Lucky, whose career earnings exceeded the $1 million mark when third behind Gun Runner in the Foster. Tu Brutus most recently was third behind War Story in the Brooklyn and hopes to improve, with Cautious Giant and Discreet Lover rounding out the field.
Pace Scenarios: One of the most interesting aspects in handicapping this year's Whitney is the potential early pace scenarios. Gun Runner won the Stephen Foster Stakes and Razorback Handicap this year leading from start to finish and was near the front of the field in the Dubai World Cup before being passed by Arrogate. The last time he won from off the pace was back in March 2016 when victorious in the Louisiana Derby, and I fear he is very set in his ways now. This could be problematic because not only has Tu Brutus gone to the front at the start in all three of his U.S. starts, but Cautious Giant looks to have been entered to ensure a fast pace for his stablemate, War Story. Both War Story and Cautious Giant share common ownership and Cautious Giant is strictly a sprinter stretching out to two turns so slowing him down much from the fast fractions he has been running in shorter races appears improbable at best.
Considering Breaking Lucky gets the No. 2 post position and the horse inside of him in the gate, War Story is going to be coming from behind, Breaking Lucky could find himself right off whoever the pacesetter or pacesetters are in the early stages. That scenario resulted in a near upset at 48-to-1 odds in last year's Woodward Stakes at Saratoga, in which Breaking Lucky was beaten three heads on the wire in a blanket finish. He had no shot in the Stephen Foster when last seen as Gun Runner opened up an easy lead all by himself, but this is a different race and it could be that Breaking Lucky could improve off his career-best 119 Equibase Speed Figure from last year's Woodward to post the upset in the Whitney.
War Story hasn't run nearly as fast as many of the main contenders in the Whitney, with a career-best 108 figure earned winning the Queen's County Stakes last December at this mile and an eighth trip. However, most recently in the Brooklyn Stakes War Story put in a very strong late run to draw off by two lengths. Javier Castellano was a key to that effort when riding the horse for the first time and with Castellano aboard again, it may very well be that War Story will be in the same position in the early stages of the Whitney, ending with the same graded stakes winning result.
Gun Runner can't be completely eliminated as a contender even though most of the various early pace scenarios do not favor his recent running style. Still, with 125, 129 and 122 figures earned in his last three races, he is definitely faster than any other Whitney entrant when he leads from the start. Although Gun Runner has earned his last four wins on the lead going back to June 2016, he did win from off the pace in the run up to the 2016 Kentucky Derby when winning the Risen Star Stakes and Louisiana Derby. In the event regular jockey Florent Geroux can get Gun Runner to relax off likely early leaders Cautious Giant and Tu Brutus, it may very well be the rest of the field is running for second because he is the fastest horse in the field.
Keen Ice has won just three races in 22 career starts, but his two wins other than his maiden victory have come in very high profile races. In the summer of 2015 here at Saratoga, he defeated American Pharoah. Then, nearly two years later in the Suburban Handicap, he defeated heavily favored Shaman Ghost. That recent effort earned a 112 figure and even though Keen Ice has been unable to put "A" efforts back to back, the pace scenario in the Whitney may flatter his late kick to help him win his second graded stakes in a row.
The rest of the Whitney field, with their best representative Equibase Speed Figures, is Cautious Giant (102), Discreet Lover (112) and Tu Brutus (110).