February 21, 2018

Gun Runner gets overdue chance at Pegasus World Cup glory

Gun Runner missed his chance at the 2017 Pegasus due to an EHV-1 outbreak at Fair Grounds (Photo courtesy Lauren King/Coglianese Photography)

After capping a Horse of the Year-worthy campaign in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), Gun Runner could well have ridden off into the Del Mar sunset. But connections are giving him one last hurrah in Saturday’s Pegasus World Cup (G1) at Gulfstream Park, and the $16 million purse isn’t the only incentive.

It’s also a case of unfinished business.

Co-owners Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm, and trainer Steve Asmussen, were pointing Gun Runner toward last year’s inaugural running of the Pegasus. The Candy Ride colt was on the upgrade after a breakthrough win over older horses in the Clark H. (G1), notching a then-career best Brisnet Speed rating of 112. Although well adrift of Arrogate in the 1 1/4-mile Travers (G1) in their prior meeting, a rematch in the 1 1/8-mile Pegasus would have suited the new-and-improved Gun Runner. And it was also his one and only chance of tackling the retiring California Chrome.

Then an obstacle arose: the EHV-1 outbreak at Gun Runner’s winter home at Fair Grounds. Gulfstream officials insisted upon not just bloodwork, but a nasal swab too, before they’d countenance letting Gun Runner on the premises.

Tim Ritvo, Chief Operating Officer of The Stronach Group, recalled in a Monday NTRA teleconference how Gulfstream was under “a lot of pressure” at that “anxious time.” The track sent its own investigative team to Fair Grounds to size up the situation, and Gulfstream’s medical advisors recommended further testing on Gun Runner.

“We were still concerned about the protocols put in place” at Fair Grounds,” Ritvo said, and “why it spread as fast as it did.”

There were “some fundamental issues that bothered us.” Hence “bloodwork was not good enough for our medical team. A swab had to be done.”

Gun Runner started 2017 with a demolition job in the Razorback (Photo courtesy Coady Photography)

Given the realistic chance of a nasal swab returning a false positive, however, Gun Runner’s connections declined. Had he come back with an inaccurate result, he would have been grounded. At a minimum his whole spring campaign would have been wrecked. Thus they erred on the side of skipping the Pegasus.

Ritvo, a former trainer himself, understood Team Gun Runner’s position.

“I probably wouldn’t have done it,” Ritvo responded, citing the false-positive concern. “It may have put him out of commission much longer.”

Gulfstream lost in the situation as well, since Gun Runner’s presence “would have helped pari-mutuel handle” on the big day.

“The last thing we wanted to do was to keep a horse of his caliber out of the race,” Ritvo said, but the track had to act “on the side of caution for all of the other valuable horses that were here.”

Feeling “real sorry” for Gun Runner’s absence, Ritvo concluded that it was “just too much of a risk to bring him in” considering “everything going on down there” at Fair Grounds.

Gun Runner instead commenced his campaign at Oaklawn Park in the following month’s Razorback H. (G3). Judging by how he romped in a swift 1:40.97 for 1 1/16 miles, not far off Heatherten’s 33-year-old track record of 1:40.20, Gun Runner would have been a prime factor in the Pegasus.

Asmussen, speaking earlier on the same teleconference, commented on having a second chance at the world’s richest race.

“We all feel somewhat a loss, in the lack of opportunity to run him in it last year,” the Hall of Fame horseman said. “It puts us in a position to correct that.”

While Gun Runner is part of the plentiful speed on tap in the Pegasus, Asmussen isn’t trying to formulate tactics. He prefers to leave that up to his stable star.

“We’ve had a lot of success letting Gun Runner decide where he wants to be.

“We’ve got one plan, and that’s to run Gun Runner.”

Jockey Florent Geroux celebrates as Gun Runner wins the Breeders Cup Classic (G1) at Del Mar on Saturday, November 4, 2017 (c) Jamie Newell/Horsephotos.com

Asmussen, who’s trained Hall of Famers Curlin and Rachel Alexandra, paid Gun Runner a lofty compliment. He ranks Gun Runner’s Breeders’ Cup Classic wire job as “probably my strongest run to date by any horse,” in view of how the track was playing.

Asked to compare him to 2007 Classic winner Curlin, Asmussen noted the “uniqueness of each of them” but underlined one commonality: “how in control of the situation they always seem to be.”

Asmussen praised Gun Runner for “how he stepped up when called upon, met the challenge, got the job done.

“He’s truly a special horse, mentally and physically. We’ve been on a tremendous run with him, appreciate being in his presence.”

The Asmussen barn won’t enjoy his presence much longer. Gun Runner will bid them adieu after the Pegasus and take up his new career as a Three Chimneys stallion.

“A lot of emotions for the whole team,” his trainer said of the mood ahead of Gun Runner’s final race.

“It’s a very personal thing for me as well as everybody else involved. Impossible to put into words, to tell you the truth.”

Asmussen can put into his words his wish for the Pegasus:

“I very much want Gun Runner to go out the way we feel he deserves – on top and heralded as he has been since the Breeders’ Cup Classic.”

Gun Runner will be heralded at Thursday night’s Eclipse Awards gala, when he is sure to emulate Curlin and Rachel Alexandra as a Horse of the Year honoree. Well may the party carry over to Saturday afternoon.

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