Nothing could knock the smile off trainer Steve Asmussen’s face. All week, he knew he had the horse to beat in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Gun Runner justified that confidence in emphatic style.
Blasting out of the gate, Gun Runner led start to finish in Saturday’s $6 million Classic, turning back repeated challenges from runner-up Collected. Ridden by Florent Geroux, the 4-year-old chestnut not only ran away with the Classic, but the title of Horse of the Year.
Speed had folded all day at Del Mar with front-runners repeatedly inhaled by closers. But Asmussen stuck with his game plan, telling Geroux to let Gun Runner make everybody catch him.
“I think letting (Gun Runner) be who he is has put him on this stage and made him undoubtedly the Horse of the Year,” Asmussen said.
A son of Candy Ride out of a Giant’s Causeway mare, Gun Runner is closely related to 2005 Classic winner Saint Liam, half-brother to Gun Runner’s mother. Owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm, Gun Runner now has won 11 of 18 starts.
“He’s a bigger, stronger, better version (of Saint Liam),” Asmussen said. “I think he’s better today than he’s ever been.”
As anticipated, front-running Gun Runner and Collected battled from the start. Racing away from the rail, the duo went head to head for most of the 1 1/4-mile Classic, setting sprint-like fractions of 22.50 seconds for the quarter-mile and 46.31 for the half. In the final furlong, Gun Runner gradually pulled away to prevail by 2 1/4 lengths in 2:01.29. Late-running West Coast finished third, another length back. As second choice, Gun Runner returned $6.80 for a $2 wager.
“At the quarter pole, it was just a two-horse race between me and Collected,” Geroux said. “We just went on and the best horse won the race.”
“You witnessed why we feel the way we do about Gun Runner,” added Asmussen, “and he’s done nothing to make us think any different.”
Collected and West Coast, two of trainer Bob Baffert’s quartet of Classic starters, gave him little consolation, although they earned a combined $1.56 million. His other two – Arrogate and Mubtaahij – were never in contention.
The defending Classic champion, Arrogate had beaten Gun Runner in two previous meetings. But in this Classic, he finished in a dead heat for fifth with Gunnevera. Mubtaahij was eighth.
Arrogate, a slight 2-1 favorite over Gun Runner, showed again that he really doesn’t like the beach with his third consecutive loss at Del Mar. Starting from the rail, the world’s richest racehorse broke inward and seemed to struggle the entire trip, running at the back of the 11-horse field before passing tired horses in the stretch.
“At the break when he ducked in and (jockey Mike Smith) had to gather him up, you just can’t do that against these horses,” said Baffert, who had won the last three Classics. “But I notice when he goes around these turns, he loses momentum. I can’t really totally blame it on the track. He’s so much better than that.”
Arrogate retires with $17.4 million in earnings. That record may not last long. The winner’s share of $3.3 million bumped Gun Runner’s earnings to $8.98 million and he may return to racing next year.
This was Asmussen’s second Classic victory; he also won with Curlin 10 years ago.
In its Breeders’ Cup debut, Del Mar also proved to be a winner. Enjoying sunny weather, Saturday’s announced crowd of 37,692 brought the two-day total to 69,970 – about 48,000 fewer than Santa Anita’s two-day total in 2016. With ticket sales capped at 37,500 each day, the Del Mar crowd bet enthusiastically, wagering more than $15.9 million on-track Saturday. The two-day total of $25.1 million was up 21.4 percent from 2016. Total Breeders’ Cup handle topped $166 million, up 5.9 percent.
Five tickets hit the Pick Six, worth $388,423. Before the Classic, the only favorite to succeed was World Approval ($7.40), who won the $2 million Mile.
In a day devoted to world championships, stunning upsets – including a $135.40 shocker by Bar of Gold in Filly & Mare Sprint – scrambled title hopes in almost every division.
Good Magic ($25), who cost $1 million as a yearling, won the first race of his three-start career in the $2 million Juvenile for New York trainer Chad Brown, who earned his 10th Cup victory. Brown and owners eFive Racing also teamed up for victory Friday with Rushing Fall in the Juvenile Fillies Turf.
In the $3 million Turf, British-bred Talismanic ($30.60) held off Beach Patrol and Highland Reel to set a Del Mar track record for 1 1/2 miles: 2:026.19. Pre-race favorite Ulysses was scratched Saturday morning due to a swollen fetlock.
As for Horse of the Year, the choice became abundantly clear. Gun Runner left no doubt.
Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington