Making the Grade: Gun Runner

Eclipse Sportswire

Gun Runner earned 50 Kentucky Derby points with his win in Saturday's Risen Star Stakes. (Photos by Eclipse Sportswire)

Making the Grade, which will run through the 2016 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners of the big races, usually from the previous weekend, who could impact the next Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey) and pedigree.

This week we take a closer look at Gun Runner, winner of the $400,000 Veterans Ford Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 20 at Fair Grounds.

Gun Runner

Chestnut Colt

Sire (Father): Candy Ride

Dam (Mother): Quiet Giant, by Giant’s Causeway

Owner: Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm

Breeder: Besilu Stables (Ky.)

Trainer: Steve Asmussen

Kentucky Derby Points: 51 (Ranked No. 1)

No winner of the Risen Star Stakes has ever gone on to win the Kentucky Derby. But that’s simply an anomaly; one day a Risen Star winner will be led into the winner’s circle after the first jewel of the Triple Crown. In fact, it could very well be this year. There is much to like when taking a closer look at 2016 Riser Star winner Gun Runner. Let’s explore …

Ability: Three-year-olds facing adversity for the first time, like the sloppy track Gun Runner was challenged with in his stakes debut in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last November, present an interesting riddle for racing fans.

Did Gun Runner’s fourth-place finish in his third career start indicate he was a cut below graded-stakes quality or was it a case of a talented colt simply not handling a sloppy track, which he pretty clearly did not relish? My instinct after the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes was that Gun Runner might not be quite as good as advertised. I was wrong.

This colt who won his career debut going one mile at Churchill Downs and his second race by two lengths at 1 1/16 miles at Keeneland Race Course roared back on Feb. 20 in the Risen Star Stakes. Making his fourth career start and his 3-year-old bow, Gun Runner accelerated clear in the Risen Star stretch and held off a late rally from Forevamo to prevail by a half-length. Gun Runner earned a career-best 106 Equibase Speed Figure, a nine-point jump from his previous top that places him right there with the best figures from this group of 3-year-olds. He also banked 50 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard to move into first place and essentially secure a spot in the first jewel of the Triple Crown.

There is much to like with Gun Runner. He’s led in the stretch in each of his four races; he took a significant step forward in his season debut; and he has plenty of room to mature with only four races to date. He lugged in toward the rail after passing Candy My Boy in the Risen Star stretch and looked like either he lost a bit of focus or just started to run out of gas late, but these are things that can be corrected. The Risen Star was Gun Runner’s first race in 12 weeks and he beat 10 other talented horses, including two he finished behind in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, to punch his ticket to the Kentucky Derby.

“That's the dream, right - the Kentucky Derby,” said Ron Winchell of co-owner Winchell Thoroughbreds. “He’s been highly anticipated and a quality horse. Right now, the [Louisiana Derby] is the plan.”

Running style: In four races, Gun Runner has been either fourth or fifth after the opening quarter-mile in each start and anywhere from 1 ½ to four lengths off the pace. He’s shown the ability to respond to his jockey’s command and accelerate when called upon. Gun Runner also has demonstrated a strong will to win by getting to the front in each race. The pace was a bit quicker in the Risen Star than his previous races, but Gun Runner was able to keep up without any problem and took aim on pacesetter Candy My Boy approaching the stretch. I wonder if stalking the quicker pace might have taken a little of the starch out of Gun Runner late in the Risen Star, but give him credit for holding on to win. He should be much fitter for the Louisiana Derby.

Gun Runner has enough speed to race within striking distance of the pacesetter and to keep himself out of trouble, plus the maturity and willingness to listen to his rider. That combination should serve him well moving forward.


Connections: Gun Runner’s trainer, Steve Asmussen, won the Eclipse Award as outstanding U.S. trainer in both 2008 and 2009, but he is perhaps best known as the trainer of three straight Horses of the Year — Curlin in 2007 and 2008 and Rachel Alexandra in 2009. Asmussen earned his two wins to date in Triple Crown races with the aforementioned duo, taking the Preakness in 2007 with Curlin and the Preakness in 2009 with Rachel Alexandra.

Although he has never won the Kentucky Derby, Asmussen has one second (Nehro, 2011) and one third-place finish (Curlin, 2007) in the first jewel of the Triple Crown. He also finished second in the Belmont Stakes with Curlin in 2007.

Asmussen has won 7,227 races through Feb. 22, which ranks second all time behind only Dale Baird among North American trainers. He holds the North American record for wins in a season with 650, set in 2009. Asmussen owns five wins in the Breeders’ Cup World Championships to date, including the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Classic Powered by Dodge with Curlin.

Gun Runner is owned by the partnership of Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm.

Winchell Thoroughbreds is the racing operation started by Verne Winchell and now run by his wife, Joan, and son, Ron. Verne Winchell founded the doughnut company Winchell’s in 1948 and one of his first top runners was the appropriately named Donut King. Verne Winchell died at age 87 in 2002.

The Winchells also raced 2005 Kentucky Oaks winner Summerly and 2004 Wood Memorial Stakes winner Tapit, who has gone on to become one of the top sires in the U.S. Many of the Winchells’ top runners are by Tapit, including their most recent Kentucky Derby runner Tapiture (2014) and 2014 Kentucky Oaks winner and champion 3-year-old filly Untapable.

Three Chimneys Farm is one of the leading Thoroughbred breeding operations in Central Kentucky. The Midway, Ky. farm was founded by Robert and Blythe Clay more than 40 years ago and oversaw prominent stallions such as Seattle Slew, Dynaformer and Rahy. The Borges Torrealba family in November 2013 acquired a controlling interest in Three Chimneys. Gonçalo Borges Torrealba serves as its chairman, Doug Cauthen is the vice chairman and the operation also is guided by Directors Ana Borges Torrealba Affonso, Robert Clay, Dr. Ibrahim Eris, Dr. Stephen Jackson and Everett Dobson. Three Chimneys currently stands seven stallions, including champion Will Take Charge and 2013 Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice.

Florent Geroux rode Gun Runner for the first time in the Risen Star. Geroux, 29, enjoyed his best season to date in 2015 when he achieved career bests in both winners (175) and purse earnings ($10,233,677). Geroux’s banner year was highlighted by two wins at the Breeders’ Cup World Championships on Mongolian Saturday in the TwinSpires Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint and Catch a Glimpse in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf.

Geroux’s father, Dominique Geroux, was a jockey and trainer in France. Florent entered a jockey school at the age of 13 in his native France and began riding in races at 17. He has never had a mount for the Kentucky Derby.


Video courtesy of TVG

Pedigree: Gun Runner is from the eighth crop of Candy Ride, who retired with six wins in as many starts, including a record-setting victory in the 2003 Pacific Classic Stakes after which Hall of Fame jockey Julie Krone referred to him as a “rocket ship.”

From 667 starters through Feb. 22, Candy Ride has amassed 56 stakes winners, including 26 graded stakes winners. His top runner to date was the brilliantly fast Shared Belief, the 2013 Eclipse Award winner as champion 2-year-old male and a Grade 1 winner during all three of his racing seasons.

Like Shared Belief, many of Candy Ride’s best runners tend to have a nice combination of speed and stamina with graded stakes winners Twirling Candy, Sidney’s Candy, Misremembered and Candy Boy coming to mind.

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Likewise, the bottom half of this pedigree is impressive.

Gun Runner’s dam, Quiet Giant, was a talented runner who won seven times with two seconds from 12 career races. By 2000 European Horse of the Year Giant’s Causeway, she capped her career with a five-length runaway win in the Grade 2, 1 1/16-mile Hill ‘n’ Dale Molly Pitcher Stakes and also won a stakes race at 1 1/8 miles.

Bred in Virginia by Edward P. Evans, Quiet Giant is a half-sister (same dam, different sire) to 2005 Horse of the Year Saint Liam. That combination of racing ability and pedigree power explain why she sold for $3-million at the 2011 Keeneland November breeding stock sale. Quiet Giant was purchased by Benjamin Leon’s Besilu Stable from the dispersal of the estate of Evans, who died on Dec. 31, 2010, and Gun Runner is her first starter.

Grade 2-placed stakes winner Quiet Dance, by Quiet American, is Quiet Giant’s grandam (maternal grandmother). She was a stakes winner at 1 1/8 miles and went on to tremendous success in her second career. In addition to Quiet Giant and Saint Liam, she produced two other stakes winners as well as multiple Grade 1-placed Miss Besilu and 2008 Remsen Stakes third-place finisher American Dance. Another daughter, Beatem Buster, produced Grade 1 winner Buster’s Ready.

Combine this powerful pedigree with plenty of room to mature and emerging talent and you’ve got a very exciting contender on the Kentucky Derby trail.There is plenty to like with this family as you dig deeper, but let’s keep it simple: Gun Runner has an abundance of class and stamina in his pedigree.

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