SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Ron Winchell, who has partnered with Three Chimneys Farm in owning Gun Runner, had watched the seemingly unbeatable Arrogate bow not once but twice, in the TVG San Diego Handicap and the TVG Pacific Classic Stakes at Del Mar. He had seen Songbird coasting on the lead in the Personal Ensign Stakes only to be overtaken by Forever Unbridled in the final strides at Saratoga Race Course.
“You see all these great horses like Arrogate and Songbird getting beat. That’s fresh in your mind,” Winchell said.
He had no reason to fear.
Gun Runner ran to enormous expectations in the 64th edition of the Woodward on Saturday, sitting off a torrid early pace before roaring home by 10 ¼ lengths over Rally Cry in his final race before the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar.
“I thought it went as well as we could have hoped,” said trainer Steve Asmussen. “If we can get out to California in good shape, we’ll hope to finish out the year.”
Gun Runner’s only bobble this year came when he finished second to Arrogate on a muddy track in the Dubai World Cup on March 25. He added the Grade 1 Woodward to his 5 ¼-length decision over Keen Ice in the Grade 1 Whitney Stakes on Aug. 5 here.
The Woodward was the more impressive of the races because Gun Runner was tested so early. Neolithic shot to the lead for jockey Jose Ortiz and trainer Todd Pletcher, ensuring that the prohibitive favorite would have to earn the winner’s $450,000 share of the $750,000 purse.
“We knew we couldn’t just follow Gun Runner around there,” Pletcher said. “That wasn’t going to work. We tried that already.”
Neolithic blazed through the opening quarter of a mile in 23.20 seconds and tore through half a mile in 46.56 seconds. Gun Runner and his jockey, Florent Geroux, bided their time in second as three-quarters of a mile went in 1:10.45.
“The game plan was to leave him in Florent’s hands,” Asmussen said. “We worked him off many a horse in the mornings, knowing that he’s very comfortable in that position. But with Todd having two talented horses in there, you did expect him to send one. It was expected, and Gun Runner handled it like he’s supposed to and, with his experience at this level, proved dominant.”
The 4-year-old son of Candy Ride collared Neolithic three furlongs from home and pulled away with every stride. Rally Cry passed the weakening Neolithic for second. War Story and Discreet Lover completed the order of finish in fourth and fifth, respectively. Gun Runner covered 1 1/8 miles in 1:47.43.
Asmussen’s shipping plans have been complicated by a weather forecast that calls for extremely hot temperatures in California.
“I want to leave here before we grow a winter coat, and it’s too hot to get to California right now with the weather they’ve having over the next week. Over 100 every day, I don’t want to be a part of that,” he said. “Two or three weeks at Churchill [Downs] is becoming a strong possibility.”
Asmussen and Winchell had to be tempted to proclaim Gun Runner as the finest older horse in the land. He has, after all, displaced Arrogate at the top of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association poll. But they continued to choose their words carefully, mindful of what happened in Dubai.
Winchell said of what would be a highly anticipated rematch with Arrogate in the $6 million Classic, “We’d love to come back and face him again when he has his ‘A’ game. Gun Runner has obviously improved a lot. We’d like to see where we stand.”
So does the rest of the racing world.
$350,000, Grade 1 Spinaway Stakes: Lady Ivanka improved to 2-for-2 for trainer Rudy Rodriguez and owners Michael Dubb, Bethlehem Stables, Michael Imperio, and Susan Montanye with a three-quarter-length victory in the Grade 1 Spinaway. A Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” race, the Spinaway win gave Lady Ivanka an automatic starting spot in the 1 1/16-mile 14 Hands Winery Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.
The Oklahoma-bred bay Tiz Wonderful filly won her career debut by eight lengths on Aug. 9 at Saratoga.
“It was a tough test but we got it done,” Rodriguez said. “I think she’s very good, she’s got a very good mind. She’s just sitting there behind horses, she’s been doing that in the morning all the time, so I think she can stretch out.”
$300,000, Grade 3 Saranac Stakes: After winning one of five starts to begin his career, Voodoo Song has emerged as a rising star this summer at Saratoga. He led from start to finish to win the Saranac by a neck in his graded stakes debut, giving him his fourth win of the Saratoga meet for trainer Linda Rice.
$300,000, Grade 3 Glens Falls Stakes: Unplaced in her first four races of 2017 — all in Grade 1 or Grade 2 races — Harmonize reeled in Grateful in deep stretch to win the Glens Falls Stakes by a neck. The victory halted a six-race winless stretch since she won the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks in August 2016.