People talk a lot about growing the game and returning it to the glory days it has seen in the past. There were indeed glory days and a big part of that was twofold; large crowds at the races, and stars on the racetrack. That is what the crowds came to see. Horses stayed in training longer, and that created rivalries. The Sport of Kings was a game of rivalries for many years. Today we long for rivalries between great horses to the point we are willing to call even two races against each other a rivalry at times.
The just retired Gun Runner was a breath of fresh air to those of us who remember the old rivalries and the excitement they produced. He would have fit just fine in that era. Commercial breeding, different philosophies, a new landscape, and of course money has changed all that.
Great rivalries were not just great for attendance, they were great for the player as well. It poses a handicapping challenge to know which day Easy Goer might beat Sunday Silence or Alydar might beat Affirmed. You were rewarded if you knew Hedevar was the one who could get Dr. Fager beat by Damascus. He proved it not once but twice. The great Kelso had a few rivalries, there was Beau Purple, Gun Bow, and Carry Back.
If for no other reason, the Pegasus World Cup is a success for keeping at least some horses in training longer. The breeding industry gobbles up the three-year-olds who are successful in the Kentucky Derby faster than a world class sprinter runs their first quarter mile. This is just when fans and bettors alike are getting to know these horses well. It is good for breeding but bad for racing.
Today the economic reality is a horse like American Pharoah becomes too valuable to race. He is worth much more at stud. Most of us know horses really come into their own at four and five years of age and that only leaves us to imagine how good American Pharoah might have been. It is a safe assumption that despite our witnessing him win the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup Classic, we likely never saw the best of what American Pharoah had to offer. Racing lost him to breeding at three-years old, like so many others who would have and could have been great. You really can’t fault the connections; how do you take a chance with that kind of money at stake?
We did get to see how good Gun Runner was, and how great he became. This was a special racehorse for many reasons, his talent was only one of them. In today’s game, horses, especially the top ones run sparingly. Not Gun Runner, he danced all the dances. He was top tier throughout his career and went out the best in training at five-years old. You just don’t see that in today’s game. He was a great example of how horses develop and get stronger and faster at four and five years of age. Another example I love to mention is Forego. Most people believe Sham, a very good and fast horse in his own right, was the best horse behind Secretariat in the 1973 Kentucky Derby. Have you ever heard of Forego I’d ask? Forego went on to become a true great of the game. True he was gelded, but he also stayed in the game and matured and became one of the most versatile and best. There wasn’t much he couldn’t do on the track.
We all knew Gun Runner was a good horse when he was two, and that he was Kentucky Derby caliber when he was three. He ran well in the Derby and even looked like he had a shot to win it at one point. I personally didn’t know how special he was however until he ran in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. Although top tier, The Breeders’ Cup Mile, like the Met and Cigar Miles is run more like an elongated sprint. Gun Runner seemed to prefer longer distances and in addition to thinking it was a curious spot for him, I thought he had never seen the types of fractions he would in there. It was questionable if he was fast enough to be competitive in that type of race. The two-turn configuration helped but he still had to run fast.
I had the chance to ask Steve Asmussen about it a few months ago and I saw firsthand what a truly great horseman Steve is. Steve thought at the time of year, with the next year’s campaign in mind, that the mile would be easier on him, and take less out of him than the Classic at a mile and a quarter would. He felt he was indeed fast enough to compete, but more importantly would leave him a stronger better horse the following year. Talk about knowing your horse, you won’t find many better examples. Gun Runner ran a bang up second in the Mile and showed he had speed enough to hang with sprinters and could also carry his speed as well.
Steve campaigns his horses aggressively. Gun Runner was no exception. After the Breeders’ Cup Mile effort, he pointed to the inaugural Pegasus World Cup, but due to quarantine issues at the Fair Grounds he had to miss the race. He went to Dubai where like Seattle Slew and Zenyatta before him ran one of the best races of his life in defeat. Gun Runner’s effort in the Dubai World Cup was over shadowed by the herculean effort of Arrogate who was left at the start and made up a ton of ground to win. Gun Runner on the other hand set the pace in the desert, sans Lasix, on a track where all the winners came from off the pace. Gun Runner held on for second without much fanfare for his effort against the bias, whereas Arrogate was lauded for his effort that was bias aided. Taking nothing away from Arrogate and his spectacular race and tear of 4 incredible races, both horses ran huge that night in Dubai.
Gun Runner would not lose another race after Dubai, nor would he duck anyone, including Arrogate who spotted him a pole and ran him down.
Gun Runner went on to win the Stephen Foster, the Whitney, the Woodward, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic reversing his losses to Arrogate in the Travers and Dubai World Cup. All Grade 1’s all won easily with speed carried from a mile and an eighth to a mile and a quarter. Jockey Florent Geroux rode like he had the best horse every time and he did. This was an old school campaign, fit for an old school horse. From the start of his campaign at four at Oaklawn Park in the Razorback, to the trip to Dubai, to the Breeders’ Cup Classic romp, Gun Runner never tailed off, never bounced or regressed, and actually got better with racing and maturity. Keeping horses like this in training and racing when they are able just might be a big part of the solution all the racing shot callers are looking for with concerts and the like. This is when you see the true ability, not with babies. This is what creates rivalries and maintains interest of fans and bettors. This is what racing needs more of.
It was only fitting Gun Runner would get his chance at the world’s richest race, the Pegasus World Cup, a race he missed the year before due to no reason of his own. He deserved it. He earned it. Racing deserved it as without Gun Runner the Pegasus was just another stake. With him it was the sendoff of a true champion and Horse of the Year.
The biggest questions going into the Pegasus were, would the wide 10 post hurt the champ, no way, and would he finally regress or tail off? That nobody knew.
If you listened to Gun Runner you might have known. You can watch below Gun Runner walking back to Steve Asmussen’s barn a few days before the race and walking into the paddock to be saddled on race day. This is a horse touting himself and looking more like a budding star three-year old than a five-year old making their final start.
Gun Runner stalked the pace in the Pegasus under a firm hold by Florent Geroux. When given his head he showed us all the heart of a racehorse, he did the Pegasus name proud and will be missed. We can only hope these inflated purses, regardless of how they are funded, keep more of our stars around longer…and in the near future we see a race with a few Gun Runner’s in it, like the old glory days.
Watch Gun Runner heading back to his stall
Watch Gun Runner arriving at the paddock to be saddled for the Pegasus