Back from Dubai, Gun Runner wasted no time announcing that he was clearly in top form.
In his first start since finishing second to Arrogate in the March 25 Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline, Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm's Gun Runner drew off in the stretch for a seven-length victory in the $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap presented by GE Appliances under the lights June 17 at Churchill Downs.
The Stephen Foster is a Breeders' Cup Challenge Series "Win and You're In" qualifying race for the Nov. 4 Breeders' Cup Classic.
Gun Runner, the 1-2 favorite, had no problems despite spotting his rivals 5 to 7 pounds. The 4-year-old son of Candy Ride seized the early lead under jockey Florent Geroux, turned for home in command, opened up on his rivals, and coasted to an easy win. In 26 editions of the Stephen Foster, no horse has won the race by a wider margin.
With early-speed horses like Bird Song and Stanford not especially aggressive after the gate opened, Geroux opted to send Gun Runner to the front, and he quickly settled into a beautiful stride, polishing off a quarter-mile in :23.59 and opening up two lengths on rivals through a half-mile in :47:23 with Stanford in pursuit.
About three-quarters of the way through the far turn, the only serious challenge for the winner would come as Stanford was asked for his best by John Velazquez. But that challenge only prompted Gun Runner to flash his best in return, quickly drawing off to a commanding advantage in midstretch en route to a stakes-record winning margin. Final time for 1 1/8 miles was 1:47.56.
"I was loaded the entire trip around there. He was doing everything so easily. This horse is truly unbelievable,” Geroux said. “He's one of the best horses I've ever ridden and to put forward this type of effort after running in Dubai is so impressive. I was a bit surprised to find myself on a lone lead but I wasn't complaining one bit. What a horse."
Honorable Duty got up to finish second, with Breaking Lucky 1 ¼ lengths back in third.
Gun Runner closed out his 3-year-old season with his first Grade 1 victory in the Clark Handicap at Churchill, and has continued to progress this season. His victory Saturday pushed his career record to eight wins from 15 starts, with earnings topping $4.6 million.
Winning trainer Steve Asmussen, who saddled a then 4-year-old Curlin to a 4 ¼-length victory in the 2008 Stephen Foster following his Dubai World Cup win, thanked the owners for bringing back Gun Runner for his 4-year-old season.
"I think it was key taking our time with this horse," Asmussen said. "We always thought he would get better with age and he's proving that to us right now.
"It's special to win a Grade 1 but now we have our ticket punched to the Breeders' Cup. We got him to the winner's circle here at home and we set ourselves up for a great second-half campaign. I can't thank our owners enough. This horse is incredibly special in so many ways."