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With the 2017 Triple Crown season in the rearview mirror, the Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” season is gearing up. While “Win and You’re In” Challenge Series races for this year’s event have been taking place since January, the U.S. races are now coming fast and furious the deeper we progress into summer.
In this week’s Getting to Know feature, we focus on Gun Runner, winner of the $1.2 million Whitney Stakes on Aug. 5. The Whitney offered a guaranteed spot in the Breeders’ Cup Classic starting gate to the winner via the Challenge Series – a spot Gun Runner had already secured via his win in the Stephen Foster Handicap, another Challenge Series race, back in June.
Gun Runner serves as a compelling and timely reminder that judging a 3-year-old or an entire group of 3-year-olds after the Triple Crown races or after the big summer showdowns is premature.
A year ago in August, Gun Runner had finished a solid third in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands before winning the Grade 3 Matt Winn Stakes at Churchill Downs. But that year’s Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby winner would run a disappointing fifth in the betfair.com Haskell Invitational Stakes before finishing 15 lengths behind victor Arrogate when third in the Travers Stakes.
Arrogate was at that point making his stakes debut and Gun Runner appeared to be tailing off, while the Triple Crown races were won by three different horses who would combine to win exactly one race after the spring classics. It’s easy to see how a rush to judgment could come about.
But fast-forward 12 months and Arrogate is rated the Longines World’s Best Racehorse and Gun Runner is steadily gaining ground on him as the two dominant older males on dirt.
Specifically, let’s take a closer look at Gun Runner’s transformation from talented 3-year-old to budding superstar in a calendar year.
By the time the 2016 Travers was complete, Gun Runner had amassed a record of five wins and two third-place finishes from nine starts. From the Risen Star Stakes – his 2016 debut – through the Travers, he’d posted Equibase Speed Figures between 98 and 108, the latter earned for winning the 1 1/16-mile Matt Winn.
Since the Travers, we’ve seen the evolution of a star that comes with maturity, physical development and experience.
Gun Runner ran second in the Grade 2, $1.25 million Pennsylvania Derby, which prompted trainer Steve Asmussen to target the Las Vegas Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile rather than the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Gun Runner responded with another runner-up finish and his second straight 109 Equibase Speed Figure, which at the time was a career best.
Asmussen wheeled Gun Runner back for the Grade 1 Clark Handicap in late November and Gun Runner delivered his best race of the year, leading from start to finish en route to a 2 ¾-length romp to cap his 3-year-old season. The 114 Equibase Speed Figure he earned established a new benchmark, but one that would last only one start.
Gun Runner has been an altogether different beast in 2017, utilizing the front-running tactics that led to wins in 2016 in the Matt Winn and Clark.
He overwhelmed the opposition in the Grade 3 Razorback Handicap in his season debut, running away to a 5 ¾-length romp, and then looked like a winner in the stretch of the $10 million Dubai World Cup on a muddy track before Arrogate overhauled him in deep stretch.
His first start after the Dubai trip was a front-running, seven-length romp in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap, which set him up for a spectacular performance in the Whitney.
Rabbit Cautious Giant was entered in the Whitney to ensure an honest early pace and to challenge Gun Runner. But that type of tactic doesn’t appear to affect the mature 4-year-old by Candy Ride. He can sit right off the pace or go ahead and take command with his natural cruising speed, which is what he did in the Whitney.
Gun Runner seized the lead from the pacesetter before completing a half-mile and charged to a 5 ¼-length score as the 3-to-5 favorite.
The 127 Equibase Speed Figure for the Whitney was a new career best for Gun Runner and actually a few ticks above Arrogate’s top of 124. Gun Runner has posted speed figures between 122 and 127 in his three U.S. starts this year and he seems to be able to just click off one strong quarter-mile after another and still finish powerfully.
If there is one cause for concern with Gun Runner, it is his 0-for-3 record at 1 ¼ miles. Granted, each of those races came against elite competition in the 2016 Kentucky Derby and Travers and the 2017 Dubai World Cup. But two of those defeats came came against Arrogate, who is at his absolute best at the 1 ¼-mile Classic distance, while Gun Runner’s best distance appears to be 1 1/8 miles, at which he’s won four of six starts.
From a pedigree perspective, there really isn’t any reason Gun Runner shouldn’t be dangerous at 1 ¼ miles in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
He is by Candy Ride, who was unbeaten in six starts, including a dominant victory in the 1 ¼-mile Pacific Classic in 2003. Candy Ride is the sire of 33 group/graded stakes winners including champion Shared Belief, a multiple Grade 1 winner at 1 ¼ miles. Other standouts (in addition to Gun Runner) include 2010 Santa Anita Handicap winner Misremembered; Clubhouse Ride, a multiple Grade 2 winner at 1 1/8 miles; and Twirling Candy, Candy Boy, Paid Up Subscriber, Kettle Corn and Sidney’s Candy, all graded stakes winners on the main track around two turns. Candy Ride also has enjoyed success with a number of elite turf runners at longer distances.
On the bottom half of this pedigree, Gun Runner is out of Quiet Giant, a Grade 2 winner at 1 1/8 miles by 2000 European Horse of the Year and leading North American sire Giant’s Causeway. Quiet Giant is a half-sister (same dam [mother], different sire [father]) to 2005 Horse of the Year and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Saint Liam.
Gun Runner’s grandam (maternal grandmother), Quiet Dance, by Quiet American, was a stakes winner at 1 1/8 miles who produced four stakes winners and two other graded-stakes-placed runners.
Gun Runner is an elite talent with an impeccable pedigree. His emergence this year no doubt tickles the fancy of those who love a big showdown and envision a championship battle of the heavyweights between Gun Runner and Arrogate in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.