Gun Runner Eyes Triumphant Homecoming in Stephen Foster
By Alicia Wincze Hughes, courtesy Blood-Horse
The chestnut colt looked unassuming enough as he went through a routine paddock schooling session at Churchill Downs last week.
Yet, as the "Call to Post" sounded in the background, the copper-coated Gun Runner shed his calm demeanor and got his game face on for a handful of strides, as if his presence was specifically summoned beneath the Twin Spires.
"It's so funny, because he leaves the stall and he's walking along and he's got his head down. He gets over on the grandstand side of the walking ring and you could hear the 'Call to Post,' and his neck kind of bows and he starts getting up on his toes," said David Fiske, manager for Winchell Thoroughbreds, which co-owns Gun Runner with Three Chimneys Farm. "Then it was kind of like, 'Oh OK. Today's not my day,' and he goes back to walking again."
There have been few moments in his 14-race career where Gun Runner hasn't responded enthusiasticly when the business of racing was put in his head. He is always at the ready, willing to make whomever is in the gate have to go through him if they want to see what the winner's circle looks like. His last outing could arguably go down as his most admirable showing to date, even if the sport's resident freak ended up stealing the accolades.
Gun Runner just keeps being Gun Runner, no matter the distance, track, or country. On June 17, the son of Candy Ride will walk out of his own stall and onto his home track in his latest attempt to add to his reputation of unshakable, reliable quality.
The star of Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen's shedrow is set to make his first start since he finished second to champion Arrogate in the March 25 Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline (G1), and he looms as the favorite in a field of eight entered for the $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap (G1) at Churchill, the headline event on a night that features five graded stakes.
Already well-regarded for his grade 1 form and the consistency he has shown since he broke his maiden at first asking, Gun Runner nonetheless had his standing elevated further when he held the lead with 300 meters to go in the Dubai World Cup, only to have Arrogate unleash a rally for the ages to cement his status as the top dirt horse in training.
Getting beat by the world's best is no shame, and in that loss, Gun Runner showed an added dimension in handling the rain-soaked Meydan surface. He previously ran his two worst races over wet tracks. He also proved the 1 1/4-mile distance was within his scope.
"It's disappointing that he couldn't win, especially turning for home on the lead. But if you're going to get beaten, I guess being beaten by the best horse in the world—that's not all bad," Fiske said. "He's just fun to have around. He's doing fantastic. The last couple serious works he put in were pretty impressive and ... good horses like that, they kind of write their own schedule. There are only so many places he is going to fit and only so many places that have (grade 1 races) around two turns for a lot of money."
He is now widely regarded as the second-ranked horse in the handicap ranks, and he is most comfortable in his home setting, since winning the Clark Handicap (G1) at Churchill in November.
Gun Runner has won three of five starts over the Churchill oval, with one of those defeats a third-place run in the 2016 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1). After closing out his sophomore campaign by besting elders in gate-to-wire fashion in the 1 1/8-mile Clark, he put on another front-running clinic during his seasonal debut, when he took the Razorback Handicap (G3) by 5 3/4 lengths at Oaklawn Park Feb. 20.
The notion that the Dubai venture takes much out of its runners has been dispelled multiple times over the years, including the instance when another Asmussen-trained chestnut—Curlin —captured the 2008 Stephen Foster after airing his foes out in the World Cup. Gun Runner is not Curlin, but he holds similar expectations going into Saturday's edition of the 1 1/8-mile race, considering he already defeated four of his seven rivals in prior meetings.
Among those trying to top Gun Runner Saturday is graded stakes winner Stanford, who will leave from the outside post in the expected eight-horse field. The 5-year-old son of Malibu Moon enjoyed his best season in 2016, with wins in the Charles Town Classic (G2) and Harlan's Holiday Stakes (G3), and he owns a victory in the 1 1/16-miles Challenger Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs March 11.
Stanford got caught up pressing early fractions and faded to fifth in the April 22 Charles Town Classic. Trainer Todd Pletcher then toyed with trying the bay horse in the June 10 Mohegan Sun Metropolitan Handicap (G1) but figured two-turns would play more favorably to his charge.
"It's a very, very tall task taking on Gun Runner," Pletcher said from his Belmont Park barn last weekend. "We were kind of torn on which direction to go and (Stanford) didn't really fire in the Met Mile last year (when he finished eighth). He's training well, but we have a lot of respect for Gun Runner. He's just a very good horse, but we're going to give it a shot."
Marylou Whitney's regally bred Bird Song, the product of a mating between the late Unbridled's Song and champion Bird Town, has backed up his pedigree this season with wins in the Fred H. Hooper Stakes (G3) and his most recent frontrunning victory in the May 5 Alysheba Stakes presented by Big Fish Casino (G2) at Churchill. With the rail draw in the Foster, the gray colt will almost certainly have to use his early speed with Gun Runner breaking from post 3 under regular rider Florent Geroux.