SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Welcome to another edition of America’s Best Racing’s Main Track.
Each Tuesday in this space we spotlight the most meaningful story of the past week, detailing news that stands out because of its importance or perhaps the emotional response it generates.
Looking ahead, if you believe there’s a story this week that should be featured in next Tuesday’s edition of the Main Track, let us know by tweeting it to @ABRLive using the hashtag #ABRMainTrack.
As for this week, our story involves a rather spectacular mixing of horse racing and “shoe business.”
Horses have been known to lose a shoe during a race and still cross the finish line first.
It doesn’t happen often, but it’s hardly a once-in-a-lifetime event for a racing fan to witness.
But how about winning a race with five horseshoes? Especially a million-dollar Grade 1 stakes? With five shoes? Now you’re talking about a horse of a different color.
If it took 37 years for American Pharoah to end a Triple Crown drought, you could probably double that and still be sitting twiddling your thumbs waiting for a horse like Gun Runner to win a race as prestigious as the Whitney Stakes while carrying five horseshoes across the finish line.
If you haven’t been on Twitter in a while, it seems that a horse shoe came off Cautious Giant – a 62-1 shot who was entered a pacesetting “rabbit” for stablemate War Story - during the $1.2 million Whitney at Saratoga. The shoe off the rabbit’s foot flipped up in the air, landed in the tail of Gun Runner who was outside of him, and remained tangled there for the remainder of the mile and an eighth stakes.
The chances of that happening? Let’s just say it seemed appropriate to ask Gun Runner’s trainer, Steve Asmussen, on Monday afternoon if he had spent the last 24 hours purchasing a bunch of Powerball tickets so he could beat astronomical odds once again.
“I think,” Asmussen said, “I used up all my luck on Saturday.”
Here’s how he explained the incident: “[I only noticed it] once he slowed down. We watched the tape repeatedly, repeatedly, and if you never seen anything before, just wait around. Can you believe that? I mean if we tried to throw one and stick in one's tail as he was standing, still we'd go 0-for-1,000 - let alone at a run, let alone Gun Runner, let alone in the Whitney - and it stayed. [With] how fast he was going, it was held out from him, when he slowed down to walk, then it came into him. We were obviously unaware of it until he came back to the winner's circle, but not a nick on him. I mean, there's still nails in it."
While Gun Runner’s dabbling into “shoe business” created the renowned 15 minutes of fame, what promises to be the meaningful aspect of the Whitney was the brilliance of Gun Runner’s victory.
After starting his 4-year-old season with an easy 5 ¾-length romp in the Grade 3 Razorback at Oaklawn Park, Gun Runner traveled halfway around the world to the Middle East and finished second to the mighty Arrogate by 2 ¼ lengths in the $10 million Dubai World Cup on a muddy track - which is not his preferred surface.
Back home in America, Gun Runner took a big step forward by winning the Grade 1 Stephen Foster by a stakes-record margin of seven lengths in 1:47.56 for mile and an eighth, and on Saturday his 5 1/4-length score over Keen Ice in 1:47.71 for the same distance was equally decisive and impressive – especially with five shoes.
“We’ve been pretty amazed by Gun Runner’s performances and it was more of the same [in the Whitney]. He’s spoiled us with his ability and consistency. I feel extremely fortunate to be a part of it,” Asmussen said on Monday. “I think he was a very talented 2-year-old. He had a solid 3-year-old year and is having an excellent 4-year-old season. He’s doing everything we always hope they will. He’s gotten better with time.
“I thought the Whitney looked very similar to the Foster, and we’re happy with the way he came out of it of it so and the Woodward [Sept. 2 at Saratoga] is looking extremely likely as his next start. All systems are go.”
The Whitney also added to the intrigue of this year’s Horse of the Year chase, which seemed a foregone conclusion until Arrogate’s clunker in last month’s San Diego at Del Mar – the site of this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 4 – opened the door and Gun Runner trotted through.
What seemed a coronation a month ago has morphed into a horse race. With Arrogate targeting the Pacific Classic on Aug. 19 at Del Mar and Asmussen saying the Woodward will be Gun Runner’s next stop, it looks like both will have one more start this month and then will train up to what’s become a suddenly exciting showdown in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
In some ways, it’s a scenario similar to last August. A month earlier, California Chrome seemed a cinch to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Then Arrogate won the 2016 Travers at Saratoga with the rest of the field – which included Gun Runner in third – an area code behind him. When November rolled around, it was Arrogate who proved best.
Monday’s National Thoroughbred Racing Association top 10 poll reflected a slight change in attitudes in the aftermath of the Whitney. Arrogate was still on top with 29 of 40 first-place votes and 384 points, while Gun Runner, owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm, was second with nine first-place votes and 366 points. The previous week, Arrogate had a larger 31/353 to 3/307 lead.
Yet in Asmussen’s mind what happened a year ago or even this past weekend has no bearing on what will happen between now and December when Eclipse Award balloting begins.
“People are always trying to compare everything and they are individual events. All we can worry about is Gun Runner and how he’s doing. He’ s obviously at an elite level and every time he runs another race like the Foster or Whitney it validates his form,” Asmussen said. “People are asking all the time and all I can say is we had a better two weeks than Arrogate had and that doesn’t mean anything for their next race. We’re all very aware of how brilliant Arrogate has been in the past and with the hiccup he had in the San Diego everybody involved in racing, every fan of racing will be extremely interested to see how he does in the Pacific Classic and that’s out of our hands with Gun Runner. “
One thing is for certain, though. Arrogate just might win the Pacific Classic and perhaps even the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but can he win them with five horse shoes?
It’s a safe bet he won’t. Gun Runner has already take care of that oddity for the 21st Century.
The Also-Eligible List
Here are some of the other stories that made for a lively week in the U.S. Thoroughbred racing industry: