DEL MAR, Calif. — As trainer Steve Asmussen made his way through the fading light of Del Mar racetrack shortly after sundown on Saturday night, just minutes after his horse Gun Runner had outrun 10 others in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, Jill Baffert saw him walking through the paddock and ran over.
“Congratulations,” said the wife of trainer Bob Baffert, who had run four horses against Gun Runner. “He’s an incredible horse.”
“It was our turn, right?” Asmussen said.
Gun Runner’s turn was more than seven months in the making. Back in March, he had finished second to Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup. But until Saturday, they had not met since. In that time, Gun Runner had won three straight races, while Arrogate had lost twice. If either won the Classic, that horse would be Horse of the Year and champion older dirt male.
It was no contest. Arrogate, favored at 2-1, took a left-hand turn leaving the gate from his rail draw, found himself well back over a track where he lost twice this summer and could only rally for a dead heat for fifth, his third straight loss in what was the final start of his career.
Gun Runner, meanwhile, proved again that he needed no excuses — not pace, not surface, nothing. His remarkable consistency had carried him to five wins in his prior six starts, the lone setback being when Arrogate turned in a herculean effort in Dubai. This time, Gun Runner would be tested the whole way, setting a swift pace while racing on what might have been the worst part of the track, and he still turned in the fastest race of his career.
Gun Runner ($6.80), hounded by Collected the whole way and through fractions of 22.50 seconds for the opening quarter, 46.31 seconds for a half and 1:10.50 for six furlongs, turned back Collected’s bid in upper stretch and was pulling away anew in deep stretch to win the Classic by a widening 2 1/4 lengths. He covered 1 1/4 miles on the fast main track in 2:01.29, which translated into a Beyer Speed Figure of 117, the highest of his career.
“He’s had a lot of travel, a lot of fast races, and he’s better today than he’s ever been,” Asmussen said later at a postrace press conference. “The year this horse has put together would be hard to top. He’s better today than ever, and that was the plan.”
Collected, racing over a track he adores and at which he won the Pacific Classic during the summer meet, finished second, 1 1/4 lengths in front of West Coast, with War Story fourth. Arrogate and Gunnevera finished in a dead heat for fifth, then came Churchill, Mubtaahij, War Decree, Pavel and Win the Space.
For the 4-year-old Gun Runner, this was his fifth win in six starts at five different racetracks in 2017. He has now won 11 times in 18 starts at 10 different racetracks. And he won for the first time going 1 1/4 miles after finishing second once and third twice in three prior attempts.
“Is there anything he hasn’t done?” a playful Asmussen said as he walked through the tunnel heading to the paddock after the race.
Gun Runner, starting from post 5, was angled off the rail leaving the gate by jockey Florent Geroux, but he still was closer to the rail than Collected over a surface where inside runners had not fared well this week.
“I watched races all week, and 22 and 3,” Asmussen said, referring to the opening-quarter mile of the Classic, “on the inside wasn’t having a lot of success. But Gun Runner wasn’t one of them.”
Geroux said Gun Runner was “very comfortable” despite setting the rapid pace.
“He was flopping his ears back and forth,” Geroux said. “At the quarter pole, it was a two-horse race with me and Collected, and the best horse won.”
Collected started from the outside and had to be used a bit to get around a scrum of horses and take up a stalking position into the first turn behind Gun Runner. As the field neared the far turn, Martin Garcia, on Collected, said he turned to Geroux and said, “I have a lot of horse.”
“Me too,” Geroux replied.
At the quarter pole, “I said, ‘Let’s go,'” Garcia said.
Through the lane, Garcia said he angled Collected away from Gun Runner because he knows Gun Runner likes to fight.
“I know he’d respond,” Garcia said of his respect for Gun Runner. “My horse tried. I couldn’t do anything. Gun Runner is a really good horse. He got a good position, and I had to let my horse run a little early to get position.
Going into the far turn, “I couldn’t move too early,” Garcia said. “If I use my horse too early, maybe I lose second and run third.”
Gun Runner had spent the past month in California, first at Santa Anita, then for the past week and a half at Del Mar, part of a plan that was months in the making. Gun Runner was given an ambitious schedule, but Asmussen said he recovered from his works and his races better as the year progressed.
Gun Runner won the Stephen Foster in June, then the Whitney and Woodward at Saratoga, all after returning from Dubai. He then was pointed for the Classic. He had four works at Santa Anita and one at Del Mar, with assistant Scott Blasi overseeing the day-to-day care during the California stay.
“The way that he has taken his races, the way that he’s coming out of them, me and Scott were just marveling at him this week how strong he looked schooling this week,” Asmussen said.
Gun Runner then schooled his competition in his first start at Del Mar. He earned a first prize of $3.3 million, putting his career earnings just shy of $9 million.
There might be more for Gun Runner. Ron Winchell, whose Winchell Thoroughbreds owns Gun Runner in partnership with Three Chimneys Farm, previously had said that the Pegasus World Cup in January at Gulfstream was a possible next start for Gun Runner, and that it was “50-50” whether Gun Runner would race all of 2018.
But on Saturday night, Winchell and Asmussen and Goncalo Borges Torrealba of Three Chimneys all dodged questions about Gun Runner’s plans — not to be coy but, it seemed, simply because they wanted to enjoy, just for a little bit longer, the satisfaction of having seen a monthslong plan come to fruition.
It was their turn.