All Eyes on Gun Runner in Whitney Stakes
By Alicia Wincze Hughes, courtesy Blood-Horse
In the times when the added weight of expectations has been tossed onto Gun Runner's shoulders, the son of Candy Ride has responded by shrugging off the challenge.
Four times in his career, the multiple grade 1 winner has gone to post as the betting favorite. In those instances, he not only prevailed but did so by a combined margin of 20 3/4 lengths.
Even before the results of recent weekends, the $1.2 million Whitney Stakes (G1) at Saratoga Race Course was slated to be the latest outing in which Gun Runner would be deemed the clear-cut superior. Because of some circumstances outside of his doing, there is now added heftiness to the copious amounts of focus he was already set to draw.
After champion Arrogate suffered a stunning defeat in the July 22 TVG San Diego Handicap (G2), the eyes of the handicap division are even more intensely fixated on the horse widely considered No. 2 in the rankings. With rain in the forecast and a rabbit entered to try and disrupt his rhythm, Gun Runner will no doubt elevate himself should the 4-5 morning-line favorite run to his form in the Aug. 5 Whitney Stakes over 1 1/8 miles.
Owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm, Gun Runner has spoiled his connections with top-level consistency that is still showing signs of improvement. After opening his 2017 campaign with a facile triumph in the Feb. 20 Razorback Handicap (G3), the 4-year-old chestnut colt ran one of the best races of his life in the $10 million Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline (G1) March 25 only to end up second following a brilliant last-to-first surge from Arrogate himself.
Beneath the Twin Spires of his base at Churchill Downs, the Steve Asmussen trainee had a glorified workout as he captured the June 17 Stephen Foster Handicap (G1) in gate-to-wire fashion by seven lengths while just missing the track record for 1 1/8 miles.
"I think Arrogate is still the king of the hill until you knock him off, but Gun Runner is still continuing to improve and do everything asked of him," said Doug Cauthen, vice chairman of Three Chimneys Farm. "It's extremely rare (to maintain his level of quality). I think it's a testament not only to the quality of him as a horse and that family, but a testament to the management that Steve and (assistant trainer) Scott (Blasi) have done throughout his career and continue to do. We'll just let them keep it going and not mess with it too much."
If there has been a common theme in the few times when Gun Runner has thrown in a less-than-ideal effort, it has come when he has raced over wet track. He faced such conditions when he ran fourth as a 2-year-old in the 2015 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) and fifth in last year's Betfair.com Haskell Invitational Stakes (G1)—the only two times he has finished worse than third in 15 starts. He did handle wet conditions in Dubai, however, though the deep nature of the Saratoga track could pose its own obstacle if the forecast showing a 100% chance of rain Saturday holds.
"I'm concerned with everything, being a horse-trainer. I'm more concerned with what we've seen over the last two weeks in horse racing," Asmussen said. "To watch Arrogate in the San Diego, with an unexplainable race, and a very surprising (grade 2) Jim Dandy result here at Saratoga in the week that just passed ... we just try to worry about what we do have control over with Gun Runner. He's done us proud."
The respect for Gun Runner is such that owner Ron Paolucci is throwing a two-pronged attack at the earner of more than $4.6 million this weekend. Under the banner of his Loooch Racing Stables, Paolucci has entered graded stakes winner War Story as well as Cautious Giant with the latter designed to serve as a pacesetter.
As adept as Gun Runner is on the front end, his victories in races like the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby (G2) last year showed he can rate if needed. The faster the fractions are in the Whitney, though, the more it sets the stage for a proven giant killer to emerge once more.
Keen Ice, famed for his 2015 Travers Stakes (G1) triumph, added another upset to his résumé when he captured the July 8 Suburban Stakes (G2) at Belmont Park over heavily-favored Shaman Ghost. That victory was the first for the 5-year-old son of Curlin since he shocked the world when he ran down Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the Travers and earned himself another top-level try after he finished seventh in the Dubai World Cup.
"It's why Todd wanted to run right back and do it here," said Jerry Crawford of Donegal Racing, which co-owns Keen Ice along with Calumet Farm. "He kind of does well everywhere. He's a horse who spent the first third of his career running against American Pharoah, and the second-third of his career running against California Chrome , and now Gun Runner and Arrogate, so he's danced every dance. He continues to show up and to be this remarkable."
Chilean-bred Tu Brutus will shorten up in distance following his third-place finish in the 1 1/2-mile Brooklyn Invitational Stakes (G2) at Belmont. The 5-year-old chestnut by Scat Daddy boasted eight victories in his native Chile, including a four-stakes win streak. During that streak he was victorious from a mile to 1 1/8 miles by a combined 26 1/4 lengths through the summer and fall of 2016.
"His last race, he was 2-5 against War Story and right away he stopped at the head of the stretch but tried right on to the wire," said Gary Contessa, trainer of Tu Brutus. "When we checked him out after the race, it wound up he had a very bad guttural pouch infection, which you really don't see unless you look on the inside of the horse. It's horse strep throat. That's what it is. He had a very swollen throat, and I think he had a very good excuse for his last race."