Steve Asmussen had to laugh. Gun Runner finally was getting his turn. Here he was, an overnight sensation two years in the making, suddenly hailed as the top horse in the nation in a poll that had been a one-note samba all year long.
“Guess we’ll have to crank up the bandwagon,” Asmussen said, enjoying the moment. “There’s plenty of room. Everyone’s welcome.”
And it could be going places. After spending the last 12 months in the considerable shadow of Arrogate, Gun Runner has emerged in the consciousness of the racing public as a pretty good horse after all, one who actually might be able to challenge for year-end honors. The idea was underlined by his recent validation in the NTRA weekly poll as the conclusive, if not unanimous, No. 1 with a bullet, relegating Arrogate to second place for the first time in 2017.
Until now, Gun Runner has been the hero’s best pal, Brad Pitt to George Clooney’s Danny Ocean, handsome in his own right but never stealing a scene. Then again, in his four starts this year, Gun Runner has never turned in a race as inexplicably dull as Arrogate’s San Diego Handicap. His only loss — to a theatrical Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup — requires no apolgies. And while Arrogate has performed at the extremes of his considerable abilities, from the heights of Dubai and Pegasus to his confounding summer at Del Mar, Gun Runner has been one of those steady players who keeps on delivering the goods for the partnership of Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm.
“I have never led him over thinking he’d do anything but win,” Asmussen said. “He’s had a good year so far, and now we’re two wins away from where we want to be.”
Step one is Saturday’s Woodward Stakes, a race with a sumptuous history that has never really found its groove after relocating from Belmont Park to the end of the Saratoga season in 2006. Not that there’s anything wrong with the Saratoga winners, among them Curlin and Rachel Alexandra for Asmussen. But following the Whitney, another 1 1/8-mile race under allowance conditions in front of the same crowd for half a million less does little to advance the plot.
Gun Runner has started 16 times, beginning with three races at 2 and continuing through a nine-race 3-year-old campaign that began with a sweep of the major Fair Grounds events and ended with a victory over his elders in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs. In between, he was third in the Kentucky Derby and Travers and second to Tamarkuz in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.
“After he won the Louisiana Derby, we always talked about not how good he was then — which was pretty good — but how much better he was going to be, whether it was a matter of six weeks or six months,” Asmussen said.
“I’m kind of a numbers guy, and I love the trajectory of his numbers,” Asmussen added. “They’ve just incrementally gotten better, which is the perfect scenario.”
Asmussen’s bar is set seriously high. With Curlin (2007-08) and Rachel Alexandra (2009), he became the first trainer with three straight Horse of the Year titles since Carl Hanford’s five-year run with Kelso in the early 1960s. Asmussen also remains the only trainer other than Ben Jones – with Armed and Citation – to have produced two different consensus Horses of the Year in consecutive seasons. (Give Elliott Burch a nod with Arts and Letters in 1969 and Fort Marcy on a split vote in 1970.)
Asked if he judges a talented horse like Gun Runner by such lofty standards, Asmussen changed the question.
“I would lean toward the opposite of that,” he said. “I realize how unlikely another one of them will come along.”
In terms of health and well-being, Asmussen has delighted in the fact that the Gun Runner who worked last Monday in his final prep for the Woodward is pretty much the same Gun Runner who won the Whitney last month and the Stephen Foster in June. All signs tell Asmussen that Gun Runner has held the form displayed in his honest second to Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup in March, and before that in his Razorback Handicap romp at Oaklawn, his 2017 debut.
“He got off the plane from Dubai a touch light,” the trainer said. “I thought I’d like to see him put on a little weight. We gave him a couple of days, and there it was, that quick. I mean, it’s hard to express what we’ve been spoiled with. If you think you want him to do something, he’ll do it.”
The Woodward works for Asmussen because it will give him nine weeks to prime Gun Runner for a showdown with Arrogate in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 4 at Del Mar. If Gun Runner walks his beat Saturday, and Arrogate trains on to the satisfaction of Bob Baffert, the Classic should determine Horse of the Year.
“He’s proven to us that he runs very well fresh,” Asmussen said. “Certainly two of his best races were the Razorback and the Stephen Foster, and in both those he was coming back after just shy of three months.”
It has been a month since Gun Runner defeated Keen Ice by 5 1/4 lengths in the Whitney.
“That’s not really a huge concern,” Asmussen said. “Although, as we know, you never want to take anything for granted at Saratoga.”