Gun Runner probably could have run through a wall of monster trucks down the Churchill Downs stretch Saturday night and still have won the Stephen Foster Handicap by about five lengths, instead of the seven by which he did dominate this Grade 1 event.
Make no mistake, Gun Runner has, with experience and age, developed into a very good horse. The 110 Beyer Figure Gun Runner earned in the Foster was his sixth straight triple-digit Beyer, and third straight of 110 or higher, in starts in this country.
And that run is interrupted only by Gun Runner’s excellent second in the Dubai World Cup last March. His performance at Meydan might have been good enough to win a few editions of the Dubai World Cup because he did finish far ahead of the other 12 who competed in that race. But of course, Gun Runner had the misfortune to run into the great Arrogate, who won the Dubai World Cup despite (let’s not forget) spotting the field a head start and who, quite obviously, was highly flattered by what Gun Runner came back to do Saturday night.
That said, for virtually all horseplayers and for many fans of our sport, how races are won is almost as important as who wins them. And that leads to the only sour aspect of Gun Runner’s Foster — one that, it must be stressed, was not his fault.
Gun Runner is very good, but he’s most deadly when he’s able to control an uncontested pace; this is true of many horses of all class levels. His Clark Handicap in his final start of 2016, and his Razorback Handicap in his first start of this year were, until Saturday night, the two strongest victories of his career, by far. And it is not a coincidence that in both of those races, Gun Runner got away with easy, uncontested early leads.
The Foster promised to reveal something about Gun Runner because this time there was quality speed to challenge him early. Bird Song, who went wire to wire in an admittedly bias-aided win in the Alysheba on the Kentucky Oaks undercard, figured to have to go from the one hole. He had absolutely no chance to win with any other approach. And Stanford, a horse who is unquestionably his most effective when he’s on the early lead, figured to have to go from his outside post.
Instead, Bird Song was literally dragged back off the pace from the moment the gate opened, and Stanford was kept under a hard hold early, never intending to take the lead from Gun Runner, or even meaningfully challenging him for it. Bird Song wound up finishing eighth and last, and Stanford checked in fifth.
As a result, Gun Runner was gifted Saturday night with yet another easy, unchallenged early lead. He is much too good a horse to be given such an enormous tactical advantage, and it was plainly obvious after a sixteenth of a mile that this nine-furlong Foster was over. To the surprise of no one aware of the pace implications, Gun Runner made his field pay. Big time.
Personally, I’d love to see if Gun Runner could be as dominating as he was Saturday night if another horse or two displaces him from the early lead, and denies him a soft trip. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he did prove to be equally effective. But I would really like to find out.
* If you were a McCraken fan before the Matt Winn on the Foster undercard, you’re certainly still a fan after he scored by just over two lengths. But if you were a bit skeptical of McCraken, the Winn probably didn’t change your mind.
The positive way to look at McCraken’s Winn is, after disappointing performances in the Blue Grass (a flat third) and Kentucky Derby (a soundly beaten eighth), the one-time Derby future book favorite who beat Belmont Stakes winner Tapwrit in the Sam F. Davis last February got his career back on the right track with not only a solid win, but also a win that leaves him lots of room to improve.
The not-so-positive way to look at McCraken’s victory in the Winn is, getting squeezed back at the start meant nothing because he’s a deep closer anyway, and the field he beat was weak. Moreover, McCraken was assigned a Beyer of only 93, meaning he has still not topped the 95 he received for winning the Davis. McCraken had better improve because, without improvement, he just isn’t fast enough to win one of the big upcoming 3-year-old races.
* It was very nice to see Forever Unbridled successfully return from ankle chip surgery and handily win the Fleur de Lis, also on the Foster undercard.
Now, like McCraken, Forever Unbridled beat an unimposing field in the Fleur de Lis and did not run fast. In fact, she was assigned a Beyer of only 89. However, there are major differences in Forever Unbridled’s case.
For one, she was barely asked to run Saturday night, while McCraken was in a stiff drive. More importantly, Forever Unbridled is a multiple Grade 1 stakes winner who has already proven she can run fast, earning triple-digit Beyers in two of her last three starts. The most recent was an excellent third in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff, in which she was only 1 1/4 lengths behind none other than Beholder and Songbird.
* Live by the sword, die by the sword. Mike Smith, who made a daring stretch rail move work with Abel Tasman last week in the Acorn during his incredible Belmont Stakes undercard win spree, found his rail pass revoked during a trouble-filled trip on It Tiz Well in the Summertime Oaks at Santa Anita. The tough thing to take for It Tiz Well’s connections is the Summertime Oaks, won narrowly by Faypien over Mopotism, was ripe for the taking.