Harry Payne Whitney: Like Father, Like Son
Some racehorses peak at an early age, flashing brilliance right from the start. Others require more time to reach their best form, maturing slowly over the course of several years.
But a rare few combine early maturity with steady development over multiple seasons, which is the recipe for a truly unforgettable racehorse. In recent years, few horses have exemplified these traits better than Gun Runner, whose early successes were mere appetizers for the career-defining performances he would unleash as an older runner.
Bred in Kentucky by Besilu Stables, Gun Runner was born on March 8, 2013 at WinStar Farm. A private sale when Gun Runner was 2 years old transferred the chestnut colt to the partnership of Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm, with Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen taking up conditioning duties before his debut.
While it’s difficult to predict whether any given newborn foal will grow up to achieve noteworthy racing success, Gun Runner always had the pedigree to be something special. His sire, Candy Ride, possessed the speed of an elite miler coupled with the stamina to carry his brilliance over classic distances. Undefeated in six starts, Candy Ride achieved his most resounding victory in the Grade 1 Pacific Classic in 2003 at Del Mar, clocking 1 1/4 miles in the track-record time of 1:59.11.
Gun Runner’s dam, Quiet Giant, was also a talented runner, counting the Grade 2 Molly Pitcher Stakes in 2011 among her five career stakes wins. As a daughter of three-time leading sire Giant’s Causeway (and a half-sister to 2005 Horse of the Year and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Saint Liam), Quiet Giant arguably counterbalanced the brilliance of Candy Ride with a solid dose of stamina, giving Gun Runner the pedigree to excel at the highest levels of the sport.
Speed … stamina … and determination. These are some of the key traits that elevated Gun Runner to greatness, and he showed them all from an early age. Indeed, Gun Runner needed all three to win his debut in a one-mile maiden race at Churchill Downs on Sept. 11, 2015. Under the fabled Twin Spires, Gun Runner tracked the early pace, then tenaciously battled the length of the homestretch to prevail by three-quarters of a length.
Over the next few months, Gun Runner ascended in rapid fashion. A fourth-place effort on a sloppy track in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes proved to be his only setback, and under the guidance of jockey Florent Geroux, Gun Runner posted winter victories in the Grade 2 Veterans Ford Risen Star Stakes and the Grade 2 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby to emerge as a legitimate win threat for the 2016 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands.
However, Gun Runner was still a work in progress when the first Saturday in May rolled around. Though he ran well in the Kentucky Derby, finishing third against a deep field, he wasn’t quite ready for the big league. Following a post-Derby victory in the Grade 3 Matt Winn Stakes, Gun Runner endured four consecutive defeats against elite competition, concluding with runner-up efforts in the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby and the Grade 1 Las Vegas Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.
But even in the midst of his losing streak, Gun Runner was displaying another valuable trait – durability. Despite running eight times between February and November, the tough-as-nails colt was none the worse for wear. To the contrary, he appeared to be thriving on his busy schedule, prompting his connections to take aim at the Grade 1 Clark Handicap just three weeks after the Breeders’ Cup.
“He’s kept his strength and his weight with the thousands of miles he’s traveled this year on the stages that he’s been on,” Asmussen said in a story published in BloodHorse Dec. 3, 2016.
The Clark marked a turning point for Gun Runner. Abandoning the conservative rating tactics he’d employed throughout the fall, Gun Runner and Florent Geroux went for broke against a deep field of older rivals. Sprinting straight to the lead, Gun Runner dared his pursuers to keep pace. But none could answer the challenge, and Gun Runner edged away through the stretch to win by 2 3/4 lengths, securing his first Grade 1 win.
“We had talked about the fact we had maybe adjusted too much to who we were running against in the last two races,” Asmussen told BloodHorse, “and today to let people adjust to him, just let him run his race.”
In the months to come, adjusting to Gun Runner would become a fruitless pursuit for many of the best racehorses in the world.
The bare statistics reveal that Gun Runner won five of his six starts in 2017 while competing exclusively against graded stakes company. But statistics fail to paint the whole picture. They can’t capture the way Gun Runner started off strong, improved as the season progressed, and ultimately developed into an uncatchable speed demon, performing at a different level than his rivals.
Racing fans received a foreshadowing of the future when Gun Runner kicked off 2017 with an effortless 5 3/4-length victory in the Grade 3 Razorback Handicap. There was no drama whatsoever in the outcome – Gun Runner never gave his rivals a chance to challenge, carving out a quick pace before finishing powerfully down the lane to win under a hand ride.
Gun Runner’s only defeat of the season came when traveling around the world for the Group 1 Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline. After tracking the early pace, Gun Runner settled for second place behind reigning champion 3-year-old male Arrogate, a four-time Grade 1 winner at the peak of his ability. But whereas Arrogate struggled to recapture his best form after returning from Dubai, Gun Runner seemed to benefit from the transatlantic journey.
In fact, Gun Runner would never again taste defeat. All summer long, he showcased his talent against top-level competition, rattling off Grade 1 wins in the Stephen Foster Handicap, Whitney Stakes, and Woodward Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets by an average margin of 7 1/2 lengths. Nothing could faze him; not even a bizarre incident in the Whitney when a rival’s lost horseshoe became entangled in Gun Runner’s tail, trailing behind him like a flag for much of the race.
“I think it was key taking our time with this horse,” Asmussen said after Gun Runner crushed seven rivals in the Stephen Foster. “We always thought he would get better with age and he’s proving that to us right now."
By the time the 2017 Breeders’ Cup arrived, Gun Runner was a complete package of speed, stamina, determination, and durability. He could have taken aim at another run in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, but his connections understandably chose to aim higher. Rather than follow an easier path, Gun Runner would seek out a rematch with Arrogate in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic, held on the same track and 1 1/4-mile distance as Candy’s Ride’s Pacific Classic romp 14 years prior.
Bettors favored Arrogate to win, but the tide had turned, and the Classic was all about Gun Runner. In a virtual copy of his Clark performance from one year earlier, Gun Runner dashed to the lead, carved out a steady pace, and edged away in the stretch to win by 2 1/4 lengths while Arrogate settled for fifth.
“The way that he has taken his races, the way that he’s coming out of them, me and [assistant trainer Scott Blasi] were just marveling at him this week how strong he looks schooling this week.” Asmussen said during the post-race press conference. “That’s a lot of travel this year, lot of fast races, and I think he’s better today than he’s ever been. What a blessing it is to have this horse to share with great people, great team, and great family.”
Unsurprisingly, Gun Runner was showered with accolades and awards, including the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year. The Classic could have been the curtain call for Gun Runner, but before heading into retirement he took a victory lap in the Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup. Vying for the winner’s share of a record $16.3 million purse, Gun Runner comfortably held off champion 3-year-old male West Coast to score by 2 1/2 lengths.
Nineteen races. Twelve wins. Half a dozen Grade 1 triumphs. $15,988,500 in career purse earnings. Gun Runner will long be remembered for his speed, stamina, determination, and durability, but he’ll also be remembered as a posterchild for how horses can improve with maturity and enjoy success never previously thought possible.
“I don’t know that he’s ever been sick or had a physical problem,” marveled Winchell Thoroughbreds manager David Fiske in a post-Breeders’ Cup Classic story published in the Nov. 11, 2017 edition of BloodHorse. “Everyone knows that horses kind of go through form cycles and are kind of up and down. Not this horse. He seems to always be up.”
If “up” is shorthand for “up at a higher level than his rivals,” we have to concur.
- Gun Runner retired with a record of 12 wins, three seconds, and two thirds from 19 starts. His only two finishes outside the top three came on sloppy tracks.
- Florent Geroux rode Gun Runner in 16 of his 19 races, including all six of his Grade 1 triumphs.
- Gun Runner won races at seven different tracks in six states.
- With earnings of $15,988,500, Gun Runner retired as the second-richest racehorse in North American history.
- Over the course of his career, Gun Runner defeated seven past or future Eclipse Award winners (Nyquist, West Coast, Arrogate, Accelerate, Stellar Wind, Runhappy, and Whitmore) and three U.S. classic winners (Nyquist, Exaggerator, and Creator).
Gun Runner went to stud at co-owner Three Chimneys Farm and immediately proved to be successful. His first crop of foals, who began racing in 2021, earned over $4.2 million on the track, easily making him the leading freshman sire in North America, and the filly Echo Zulu gave him a Breeders’ Cup win right off the bat. Gun Runner dominated the second-crop North American sire list in 2022, led by top 3-year-olds Taiba, Cyberknife, and Preakness Stakes winner Early Voting.
In December 2021, Fair Grounds held the inaugural running of a new prep race for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve – named the Gun Runner Stakes.