HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla.--The reality and uncertainty of Saturday’s $16.3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational were suspended for Team Gun Runner on Thursday, if only for one night.
With no doubt that he was going to win it, Gun Runner was formally proclaimed the 2017 Horse of the Year to climax the three-hour Eclipse Awards show here at Gulfstream Park. It was not even close. With mostly racing media voting, it was Gun Runner 248, Arrogate 2.
“I love it being official,” his trainer Steve Asmussen said during the din of the late-night celebration. “He’s not the probable Horse of the Year. He is Horse of the Year.”
Now back to reality and the unknown. Even though he is an odds-on, morning-line favorite, will Gun Runner (4-5) finish his career with a victory in the Pegasus? That is not so certain.
There is no getting around the problem of drawing an outside post position in a nine-furlong race on the main track at Gulfstream. With only 150 yards from the gate to the clubhouse turn, horses drawn wider than gate 6 since 2013 are no better than 7-for-129 – barely a 5 percent win rate.
So what is tougher? The bad luck of the draw? Or the competition that includes four other horses that finished second through fifth behind Gun Runner 12 weeks ago in the Breeders’ Cup Classic?
Asmussen bit on an unnamed third choice: “The timing of the race. All year long you knew what the next step was. It’s unique for this caliber a race to be in January. We definitely had targeted peaking at the Breeders’ Cup Classic when we brought him back in training, so he does need to step up from it.”
Still, there will be bettors who look at the post-position stats and dare to throw Gun Runner off the top of their tickets. So if not him, who could win the Pegasus?
Gun Runner and two other 5-year-olds drawn into gates 4 and 5 – Sharp Azteca (6-1) and Collected (8-1) – are poised to bring the early speed, begging the question what happens if a speed contest falls apart late in the race?
It could then set up for Collected’s stable mate in trainer Bob Baffert’s barn. Two-time Grade 1 winner West Coast (8-1) drew post position 2 and jockey Javier Castellano is likely to stalk the pace with him as he did when he finished third behind Gun Runner and Collected in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
“If somebody skips a note, I want to be there,” Baffert said. “We know that Gun Runner is going to be really tough. All I do is I concentrate on my horses, that they show up.”
The same may be said of Collected. He was inexplicably held back in his last race – a third-place disappointment as the 3-10 favorite in a dawdling San Antonio Stakes last month at Santa Anita.
“I thought I could probably sit off thinking it was going to have a whole lot more pace than what actually developed,” Smith said. “He turned off so quick I couldn’t move. It turned into a sprint for home. It was a mistake on my part.”
War Story (25-1), drawn into gate 8, and the comebacking European stallion Toast Of New York (20-1), in gate 9, also may be just off the pace for most of the race with mid-pack runner Seeking The Soul (25-1) hoping to lurk from post position 11.
Gunnevera (15-1) is the most prominent closer in the race. Last year’s Fountain of Youth winner drew 6 and may attract a bit more smart money than usual. That is because Gulfstream, a track widely perceived as speed-favoring, is playing more evenly than usual for closers.
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“Two-turn races at Gulfstream – the track’s been relatively fair,” handicapper Matt Bernier of the Daily Racing Form said on VSiN’s racing podcast. “If they go guns blazing early, there’s a real chance that this thing could fall apart.”
“The speed is good for us,” Gunnevera’s trainer Antonio Sano said. “Gun Runner outside, Sharp Azteca inside, West Coast inside, Collected inside. It all depends on the jockeys.”
No matter how the race turns out, Gun Runner’s next stop will be the breeding operation at Three Chimneys Farm in Kentucky. If he wins Saturday he would add $7 million to lifetime earnings of $8,988,500. It might have been more had he made it to the first Pegasus.
Last year at this time he was stuck in an equine-herpesvirus quarantine that was suddenly imposed at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. The failure to find a common ground in drug-testing rules between Louisiana and Florida kept Gun Runner from getting here.
“What we felt like last year before the Pegasus was that we were going to have a very good year with him whether we got to run or not,” Asmussen said. “We’ve been on a tremendous run with him and just appreciate being in his presence.”
Saturday’s race has a scheduled post time of 5:35 p.m. EST on what is forecast to be a windy day in south Florida. Following is the field from the rail out, listing post position and horse (with jockey, trainer and morning-line odds):
1. SINGING BULLET (Robby Albarado, Dale Romans, 30-1)
4-year-old Hard Spun colt makes graded debut. Won by 3¼ lengths chasing pace in Nov. allowance at Churchill.
2. WEST COAST (Javier Castellano, Bob Baffert, 8-1)
Two-time Grade 1-winning 4-year-old was 3rd in Breeders’ Cup Classic. Colt by Flatter is likely to stalk the pace.
3. STELLAR WIND (Joel Rosario, Chad Brown, 30-1)
Finale for front-running 6-year-old mare. Won three Grade 1s in a row before finishing 8th in Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
4. SHARP AZTECA (Írad Ortiz Jr., Jorge Navarro 6-1)
Runner-up in Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile won Cigar Mile last month. 5-year-old has never raced past 1 1/16 miles.
5. COLLECTED (Mike Smith, Bob Baffert, 8-1)
Lead-hunting 5-year-old was inexplicably held up in Grade 2 last month. Finished 2nd in Breeders’ Cup Classic.
6. GUNNEVERA (Luís Sáez, Antonio Sano, 15-1)
Pure closer finished 5th along dead rail in Breeders’ Cup Classic. 4-year-old won Grade 2 at Gulfstream last March.
7. FEAR THE COWBOY (Tyler Gaffalione, Efren Loza Jr., 30-1)
6-year-old horse closed from 12 lengths to win Grade 3 last month at Gulfstream, where he is 4-1-1 from six races.
8. WAR STORY (José Ortiz, Jorge Navarro 25-1)
4th in Breeders’ Cup Classic, he has one win in his last seven races. The 6-year-old gelding was 5th in ’16 Pegasus.
9. TOAST OF NEW YORK (Frankie Dettori, Jamie Osborne, 20-1)
7-year-old horse won modest UK start last month in his first race since finishing 2nd in ’14 Breeders’ Cup Classic.
10. GUN RUNNER (Florent Geroux, Steve Asmussen, 4-5)
5-year-old seeks his 5th consecutive win, all in Grade 1s. Outside draw will be hindrance to his front-running style.
11. SEEKING THE SOUL (John Velázquez, Dallas Stewart, 25-1)
Mid-pack 5-year-old won his last two, including Grade 1 Clark Handicap in Nov. Was 11th in ’16 Belmont Stakes.
12. GIANT EXPECTATIONS (Gary Stevens, Peter Eurton, 30-1)
Led gate to wire in slowly paced Grade 2 race last month at Santa Anita. Has never raced longer than 1 1/16 miles.
Racing notes: Gun Runner was named not only Horse of the Year but also champion Older Male to headline Thursday night’s 47th annual Eclipse Awards. Chad Brown actually dominated the night, winning his second straight training championship, looking after such horses as Lady Eli, the female turf champion, and Good Magic, the top 2-year-old male. Following is the full list of Eclipse winners:
Horse of the Year – Gun Runner.
2-year-old Male – Good Magic.
2-year-old Filly – Caledonia Road.
3-year-old Male – West Coast.
3-year-old Filly – Abel Tasman.
Older Dirt Male – Gun Runner.
Older Dirt Female – Forever Unbridled.
Male Turf – World Approval.
Female Turf – Lady Eli.
Male Sprinter – Roy H.
Female Sprinter – Unique Bella.
Steeplechase – Scorpiancer.
Trainer – Chad Brown.
Jockey – José Ortiz.
Apprentice Jockey – Evin Román.
Owner – Juddmonte Farms.
Breeder – Clearsky Farms.
Talk about a sea change. Breeders’ Cup directors reportedly heard an idea Friday to run the event over three days with most of the current, two-day format staying in tact in November and the $6 million Classic being moved to a stand-alone feature in early December. The proposal, said to have originated with horse-owning celebrity chef cum board member Bobby Flay, also included the creation of the Breeders’ Cup Derby, a race for 3-year-olds. The idea here would be to move the Classic to a date that would not be in competition with a day full of college football.
The Breeders’ Cup board was also said to have considered future sites for its championships. After Churchill Downs hosts them this year, there is nothing set yet. Laurel Park in Maryland is known to be a candidate to host the event for the first time.
Trainer Criquette Head-Maarek, part of the first family of French racing, announced that she will retire next week and end a 39-year career. A cancer survivor, she is the only woman to have trained winners in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe with Three Troikas in 1979 and with Trêve in 2013 and 2014. Head-Maarek, 69, got her only U.S. Grade 1 win with Hatoof in the 1994 Beverly D. Stakes at Arlington Park. Her brother, Freddy, was a six-time French champion jockey who is now a successful trainer. The two of them followed the lead of their father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
The oddest part of a long night at the Eclipse Awards was the premature posting of all the winners on the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel website more than a half-hour before the show was over. Four awards still had yet to be announced, including Horse of the Year. The newspaper got the list of winners from event organizers in exchange for promising that it would not be posted before the show was over. Apparently, editors thought the presentation would not run long, something it notoriously does year after year. At least they did not say that La La Land was Horse of the Year.
This racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s edition from Gulfstream Park offers a full preview of the Pegasus World Cup Invitational with Gun Runner’s trainer Steve Asmussen and Daily Racing Form handicapper Matt Bernier. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and Stitcher.