LAS VEGAS--“He’s ready. He’s Gun Runner.”
With those words Monday about a midday workout in New Orleans, Steve Asmussen saw off another future Hall of Famer for a farewell performance.
Asmussen has been down this road before with Horses of the Year (and there is no doubt that Gun Runner will be anointed next week the Horse of This Past Year). But this is not like Curlin’s out-of-place exit on the fake dirt of a Breeders’ Cup Classic, and it is not like Rachel Alexandra’s year-too-late retirement.
This time there is a proper stage for a grand finale. Gun Runner (3-5 at the Wynn Las Vegas) is favored to win what will be the richest horse race ever – the $16 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational. It will happen a week from Saturday at Gulfstream Park in south Florida, where the Breeders’ Cup Classic winner arrived after a Thursday evening flight.
“He’s an amazing horse that’s about to be asked to do an amazing thing,” Asmussen said. “We all know it’s scheduled to be his last race, and I want nothing more than for him to go out on top as we feel he deserves.”
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Three Chimneys Farm in Kentucky is already writing the breeding book for Gun Runner, complete with a $70,000 stud fee this spring. So you may as well call this retiring 5-year-old horse a cash cow that has already earned nearly $9 million from races with a win next weekend worth another $7 million.
Asked at the Fair Grounds if he had mixed feelings about seeing Gun Runner leave the nest, Asmussen said, “I have all winter. I just want to focus on the positives and be appreciative of the horse and all that he has done for us. He’s so special to himself and to all of us that have been lucky enough to have been around him. He is capable of doing things that we are not able to do for ourselves. It’s amazing how a horse can make you feel.”
But there are obstacles in Gun Runner’s path to a storybook ending.
The first is Wednesday morning’s post-position draw. Since the Pegasus remains the nine furlongs it inherited from the old Donn Handicap (it cannot get to 10 furlongs soon enough), that puts horses drawn wide at a severe disadvantage with the first turn coming only 150 yards after the start. Horses starting outside post 9 in dirt races of at least a mile at Gulfstream are 1-for-32 this winter. Already bearing the cross of the 12-hole last year, California Chrome did not help himself with an I-don’t-want-to-be-here effort resulting in a ninth-place finish. Arrogate, conversely, broke from the rail and galloped off to a 4¾-length victory.
Then there is the rest of the field. Trainer Bob Baffert ships in Collected (9-2), which will want the lead, and West Coast (5-1), which will chase the pace. That is exactly what happened when Collected finished second and West Coast third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, both coming up short of Gun Runner’s gate-to-wire tour de force. Cigar Mile winner Sharp Azteca (8-1) also figures to be sent to the front as does six-time Grade 1-winning mare Stellar Wind (25-1), although she probably will not be able to keep up with the boys’ early speed.
“It’s going to be a very fast race,” Asmussen said. “Nothing but respect for the competition. They’ll be ready, so we need to be ready also.”
Gun Runner certainly looked that way Monday. With his afternoon jockey Florent Geroux on board, he finished a six-furlong breeze in 1:11. Since it was a specially arranged solo turn that came two hours after the bulk of morning workouts, it was not ranked. But his 59 2/5 seconds over the first five furlongs would have been worthy of a bullet.
“I thought that he went beautiful,” Asmussen said. “The racetrack was in just pristine, perfect condition for a work that we felt was this important.”
Now it is just a question of whether this story will have as perfect an ending for a horse that won four consecutive Grade 1 races to finish 2017.
“I want everybody to feel as great about him as we do,” Asmussen said. “Just the respect we all have for who Gun Runner is physically and mentally. Just very proud of who he is.”
Racing notes: Instilled Regard 30-1 for Derby
With last week’s 3¾-length victory in the Lecomte Stakes, Instilled Regard was shortened from 65-1 to 30-1 at the Wynn Las Vegas to win the Kentucky Derby. Principe Guilherme’s second-place finish as the Lecomte favorite left him to drift from 20-1 to 25-1 in the Derby futures. Jerome Stakes winner Firenze Fire went from 75-1 to 65-1. Bolt d’Oro remains the 7-1 favorite.
Early nominations for the Triple Crown are due Saturday at 11:59 p.m. EST. A single payment of $600 makes a 3-year-old eligible for the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes if it meets the qualifying criteria. Horses nominated after the deadline would require a $6,000 fee through March 19. Late nominations after that would require a supplemental entry fee of $200,000 for the Derby, $150,000 for the Preakness and/or $50,000 for the Belmont.
If it works for California, why not New York? Copying what has been done at Del Mar and Santa Anita, the New York Racing Association has started a “Ship and Win” program. Designed to lure entries north from Florida, NYRA will offer 30 percent purse bonuses for shippers to Aqueduct and Belmont Park through July 15. NYRA also announced that it would restore the Grade 2 Wood Memorial purse to $1 million if the April 7 renewal lures at least one Grade 1 winner. The purse for the Kentucky Derby prep was reduced last year to $750,000.
After surviving a life-threatening case of laminitis to become a five-time Grade 1 winner, Lady Eli has been retired and will be put up for sale next fall. The 6-year-old mare finished her career with a seventh-place finish in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf. It was the only time she failed to make the top two in 14 career races. Owners Jay Hanley and Sol Kumin said they will send Lady Eli to the November Breeding Stock sale at Keeneland.
Despite his three-race slump late last year, defending champion Arrogate is expected to be the named World’s Best Racehorse of 2017 at a ceremony Tuesday night in London. Sponsored by Longines, the award goes to the horse that had the best rating for a single race over the course of a calendar year. Judged throughout the year by a panel of international handicappers, Arrogate was given a 134-pound ranking for his win in the Dubai World Cup, two pounds better the top mark for Australian turf sprinter Winx.
Speaking of Winx, her trainer said that she will be sent to Royal Ascot this year “if she’s 100 percent.” Chris Waller told Melbourne radio station RSN927 that the 6-year-old mare is scheduled to defend her victories in a pair of Group 1 races in Sydney in March and April. “If she wins the George Ryder by three lengths and the Queen Elizabeth by two, she’ll be on the plane,” Waller said. Winx has won 22 consecutive starts but has never raced outside Australia.
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 offers an early preview of the Pegasus World Cup with Toast Of New York’s trainer Jamie Osborne and award-winning racing journalist John Pricci. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and Stitcher.