DEL MAR, Calif.--On a day that was dominated by long shots, disappointed by favorites and dictated by a track bias, didn’t it figure that form would finally hold at Del Mar on Saturday in the last and biggest race – the Breeders’ Cup Classic?
Gun Runner (2-1), unquestionably the best horse in the second half of 2017, stamped his claim to be the Horse of the Whole Year with an emphatic, front-running victory by 2¼ lengths over course horse Collected (11-2). The nation’s best 3-year-old – West Coast (4-1) – was another 1¼ lengths back in third.
“We all watched races all weekend,” Gun Runner’s Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen said. “Twenty-two and three on the lead, on the inside, hasn’t had a lot of success this week. But I guess it wasn’t Gun Runner in that spot in the previous ones.”
Asmussen was absolutely right on that. The rail was dead. The dirt track was kind to closers. It was also kind to double-digit long shots. For crying out loud, it produced a 66-1 long-shot winner Saturday afternoon. What chance did a 2-1 horse have in a $6 million race?
“We went to the lead off the fence two or three paths,” winning jockey Florent Geroux said. “We thought the inside was not the place to be. At the end I don’t think it would have mattered. We could have been on the fence, and we would have won just as easily.”
Eleven horses started the Classic, but in truth only two of them had a chance to win. Gun Runner led at every call with fractions of 22.50, 46.31 and 1:10.50. Collected did put a nose in front a few times on the backstretch, but the rest of the field never got within 1½ lengths of them after the first turn. Gun Runner led the duel by a length turning into the stretch, and when Geroux went to the left-handed whip, the race was over. He won it with a winning time of 2:01.29 on a perfect day.
And where was Arrogate (2-1)? An indifferent, dead-heated fifth with Gunnevera (15-1), 6¼ lengths behind the winner and even 2¼ lengths behind fourth-place War Story. Yes, the 0-for-8-without-so-much-as-ever-hitting-the-board-in-a-Grade-One-race War Story (56-1). That means the best horse from the first half of the year was a shadow of his former self – literally in part because NBC dragged out the start of the Classic so late that it nearly started in the gloaming.
“He just won’t run over here,” Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith said of the dirt surface that, let’s be honest, was anathema to the now-retired Arrogate. “I tried to talk myself into thinking he would. He’s just shown me time and time again that he wouldn’t. I don’t know what it is. Every time I ride him over it he just seems to never be able to get himself up underneath himself.”
The betting public ignored Arrogate’s subpar summer and made him a narrow favorite for this race. No doubt those who backed him were scratching their heads about their judgment as much as trainer Bob Baffert was about what went wrong.
“Arrogate? I don’t know,” he said after seeing his horses finish second, third, fifth and eighth (Mubtaahij, 20-1). “He’s like a pitcher who can’t find the plate. Gun Runner is a really good horse, and he ran a great race. When he broke, he broke flat-footed and broke in, and he weaved in. He lost a lot of momentum there. I don’t know what happened to him.”
That very question could apply since late March, when Arrogate defeated Gun Runner by 2¼ lengths despite an awkward start in the Dubai World Cup. Since he came home, he was a different horse. Then again, so was Gun Runner, passing Arrogate in the opposite direction by winning Stephen Foster, the Whitney and the Woodward by an average of more than seven lengths. He may yet land in next winter’s $16 million Pegasus World Cup, but that decision will not be finalized until after this race – and this year – are fully digested.
“That’s a lot of travel this year,” Asmussen said. “A lot of fast races, and I think he’s better today than he’s ever been. What a blessing it is to have this horse to share with great people, great team and great family.
Breeders’ Cup Saturday notebook
While this first-ever Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar appeared to be an aesthetic and logistical success, the set-up of the main and turf tracks left something to be desired. Aside from the closer bias on the dirt, the turf track widened two years ago just for this occasion still seemed to be too narrow for 14-horse fields. An announced crowd of 37,692 filled the place one day after 32,278 showed up. The powers-that-be will now have to decide whether it was worth coming to a smaller but storied venue to attract a total handle of $25,181,317, up 21 percent from last year. The all-sources handle for both days was $166,077,486, up nearly 6 percent. In the meantime next year’s Breeders’ Cup will be at Churchill Downs, which traditionally draws the championships’ biggest crowds.
When front-running favorite Unique Bella (1-1) faded badly in the stretch, the door was left wide open for the second biggest upset in Breeders’ Cup history. Who knew that 5-year-old Bar Of Gold (66-1) would step up and get her first graded-stakes win in 16 tries? Ridden by Írad Ortiz Jr. for trainer John Kimmel, she held on to win by a nose over Ami’s Mesa (18-1) and Carina Mia (20-1) in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint over seven furlongs. Unique Bella was bidding for her sixth consecutive victory, but on a pace-setting rail trip for Smith, she went into full retreat and finished seventh.
Bet down to a 10-1 favorite at Wynn Las Vegas for next year’s Kentucky Derby, Bolt d’Oro (3-5) was an upset loser in the $2 million Juvenile. Chad Brown trained Good Magic to a 4¼-length victory over Baffert-trained Solomini (9-1) with Bolt d’Oro finishing another length behind in third. “I just think we never had a really good position the whole time,” trainer Mick Ruis said. “But we don’t want to make any excuses. That horse outran us. That’s all there was to it.” Both Good Magic and Solomini were sired by 2007 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Curlin.
What may have been the final race for Lady Eli (3-2) ended in disappointment. The irrepressible 5-year-old wound up with hind-leg cuts and finished a never-threatening seventh in the $2 million Filly & Mare Turf. Wuheida (11-1), a Godolphin 3-year-old trained by England-based Charlie Appleby and ridden by William Buick, ran to a one-length victory over Coolmore filly Rhododendron (5-1) with Cambodia (11-1) finishing third. It was the second year in a row that Lady Eli was a beaten favorite in this race. She won the 2014 Juvenile Fillies Turf before a near-fatal case of laminitis sidelined her for a year.
Trained by French racing legend André Fabre, Talismanic (14-1) made a late charge to win the $4 million Turf by a half-length from Chad Brown-trained Beach Patrol (3-1). Defending winner Highland Reel (7-5) finished another neck behind in third. The field benefitted from the Friday night scratching of likely betting favorite Ulysses because of an inflamed fetlock. The victory meant that European horses split the grass races 3-3 with North Americans.
Stormy Liberal (30-1), a gelding that had never before been in a Grade 1 race, took the lead in the stretch and outdueled stable mate Richard’s Boy (13-1) for a head victory in the $1 million five-furlong Turf Sprint. Disco Partner (5-1) finished third. The winning 5-year-old was bought on a $40,000 claim last year by Gary Hartunian’s Rockingham Ranch and sent to trainer Peter Miller. Jockey Joel Rosario was on board Stormy Liberal for the first time, giving him a sweet victory after he was fired from what turned out to be Friday’s ride on Distaff winner Forever Unbridled. The favorite Lady Aurelia (4-5) faded late and finished 10th in the field of 12.
Now a seven-time graded-stakes winner, World Approval (5-2) took charge in the stretch and won the $2 million Mile on the turf. Trained by Mark Casse, the 5-year-old gray gelding was ridden to a 1¼-length victory by John Velázquez, who had two wins in this year’s championship to run his career total to 15. Coolmore colt Lancaster Bomber (13-1) and Blackjackcat (19-1) finished a head apart for second and third.
Miller also trained another Hartunian gelding – Roy H (9-2) – to victory in the $1.5 million, six-furlong dirt Sprint. Sired by More Than Ready, the 5-year-old ridden by Kent Desormeaux moved closed to the pace midway through the race and went on to defeat Imperial Hint (4-1) by a length and Mind Your Biscuits (9-1) by three. Baffert-trained favorite Drefong (7-5), the defending champion in this race, finished sixth.
Smith used a long shot to make an unlikely addition to his record for most Breeders’ Cup wins by a jockey. Caledonia Road (17-1) closed for a neck win over Alluring Star (8-1) in the $2 million Juvenile Fillies. Blond Bomber (30-1) made a late charge to finish third. His first ride on the winner turned into Smith’s 26th career victory in the championships. After finishing second last month in the Grade 1 Frizette Stakes at Belmont Park, Caledonia Road is now 2-for-3 for trainer Ralph Nicks.
After the Breeders’ Cup, Ron Flatter’s racing column will be back on its weekly schedule, posting every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the new Ron Flatter Racing Pod every Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts.