Asmussen’s Emotional Final Dance with Gun Runner in Pegasus

Trainer Steve Asmussen relishing a special performance from Gun Runner in the 2017 Woodward Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets. (Eclipse Sportswire)

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen knows what it is to part with greatness.

He bid farewell to Curlin, the Horse of the Year in 2007 and 2008. He helped Rachel Alexandra to one of the most sensational 3-year-old seasons a filly ever stitched together, one that included triumphs in the Preakness and Woodward Stakes and led her to be Horse of the Year in 2009. And then, she was retired from racing not long after that.

Gun Runner after winning the Whitney. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The roiling emotions Asmussen experienced twice before have all returned. Gun Runner, after making him the first trainer to oversee three different Horse of the Year honorees, will close his memorable career today in the $16 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park. He will depart soon after that to begin his career as a stallion at Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Ky.

“It’s emotional,” Asmussen said, “because they make you feel a way that without them you would have never felt.”

He does everything possible to involve his family in his career and treasures the collection of photos they have amassed.

“You look back and you think of the day and you think of the moment and you’re appreciative,” he said.

Curlin, Rachel Alexandra, and Gun Runner all possessed once-in-a-lifetime talent. Asmussen said he learned from Curlin that the great ones show the trainer what needs to be done.

“You could lead him into town,” the trainer said, “and he’d know where the racetrack was and the stable gate was.”

Rachel Alexandra was brilliant when she made her first start for Asmussen in the Preakness after being acquired by the late Jess Jackson, and she kept rolling from there. When she became the first filly to defeat older males in the Woodward Stakes at fabled Saratoga Race Course, that performance was one for the ages.

Asmussen’s experience with Gun Runner was completely different.

“I think he had a lot of respect as a 3-year-old,” he said. “It came together for him as a 4-year-old.”

With Asmussen plotting a perfect campaign that allowed the colt to progress with every start, it came together in overpowering fashion. As in a seven-length demolition of the field in the June 17 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs. As in a 5 ¼-length score in the Aug. 5 Whitney Stakes at Saratoga. As in a 10 ¼-length romp in the Sept. 2 Woodward Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets.

That set the stage for the Nov. 4 Breeders' Cup Classic, the primary reason that owners Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm took a major gamble by campaigning Gun Runner as a 4-year-old. The connections became increasingly concerned as they watched one fast horse after another weaken at a Del Mar track not playing for speed. Under smart handling by regular rider Florent Geroux, Gun Runner’s speed held by 2 ¼ lengths against Collected and third-place finisher West Coast.

The 1 1/8-mile Pegasus, the world’s richest race, became rather complicated for Gun Runner when he drew post-position 10 in a field of 12. With an unusually short run into the first turn, Geroux will have precious little time to secure good position. And he will have 11 other riders doing everything possible to deny him that position.

“The variables of racing are why they let you bet on it,” Asmussen said. “This is just another variable.”

There are all kinds of scenarios that could develop leading into what will be a swift and furious run into the first turn. Most of them are very likely to work against the newly-crowned Horse of the Year.

“It’s a tall order,” Asmussen said. “The good news is we’ve got Gun Runner.”

It must have felt good to say that one last time.

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