Gun Runner the Target in Woodward Stakes

Gun Runner

By Alicia Wincze Hughes, courtesy Blood-Horse

A meteoric rise can be an irresistible spectacle to witness. When it comes to snatching breath away and eliciting an abundance of laudatory remarks, there is little that gets sporting blood fired up like brilliance that seemingly appears from the clouds and proceeds to turn the establishment on its ear.

Those who travel that path often get their accolades swiftly, a byproduct of the blinding nature of their ascent. Throughout his 16-race career, Gun Runner has had to encounter those who blazed straight into the mouth of glory as he methodically kept marching from one level of improvement to another.

His has been a road less sexy, less obvious, and more gradual in its swell. A common refrain among his connections is that the son of Candy Ride doesn't change, it's the scenery around him that changes.

Because Gun Runner has been unshakable in his progression, the landscape has shifted once more. When he heads to the starting gate for the Sept. 2 Woodward Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1) at Saratoga Race Course, he will be viewed as the star burning brightest among his peers.

The fact his climb has been so precise to this point has many challengers concerned he may not come down to earth anytime soon.

The level of respect Gun Runner has carried throughout his career reached a crescendo in the weeks that followed his 5 1/4-length victory in the Aug. 5 Whitney Stakes (G1) at the Spa, an outing that saw him run a "rabbit" off its feet to turn the 1 1/8-mile race into a clinic. In addition to becoming a three-time grade 1 winner with more than $5.2 million in earnings, the Steve Asmussen-trainee became a social media sensation when images circulated of a shoe from pacesetter Cautious Giant flying off mid-race and getting stuck in the eventual winner's tail as he took his six challengers to the woodshed.

The performance Gun Runner put up that day captured how devastating the 4-year-old colt has become since he earned his first top-level win in the 2016 Clark Handicap (G1) to conclude his sophomore season. From his season-opening triumph in the Razorback Handicap (G3) in February to the way he loped along as he pleased during a seven-length win the Stephen Foster Handicap (G1), the chestnut colt has been wielding early speed with greater authority and getting incrementally faster in his outings.

His only loss in his last five starts came when he finished second behind champion Arrogate in the March 25 Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline (G1). When that gray beast was defeated in the Aug. 19 $1 million TVG Pacific Classic Stakes (G1)—his second straight loss since returning from Dubai—he effectively tossed his chestnut rival into the driver's seat, where divisional leadership is concerned, heading into the Nov. 4 Breeders' Cup Classic (G1).

"He's just a pro. He hangs out in the barn and then it's like, 'OK. Time to go to work. Let me get my lunch pail,'" said David Fiske, manager of Winchell Thoroughbreds, which owns Gun Runner in partnership with Three Chimneys Farm. "When he pulled up (after the Whitney), you could see some footage of the shoe as he's jogging back and it's bouncing off his hocks and getting in between his back legs and swinging around. How he didn't start kicking at it or have it really bother him is really a testament to his demeanor and everything else.

"He's been managed beautifully and ... that's Steve. Steve has done a great job with him—recognizing what his strengths are, what his weaknesses are, how much time he needs between races, how much effort he needs to put out in the morning to get an effort out in the afternoon. It's just been masterful."

Should Gun Runner fall short in Saturday's 1 1/8-mile Woodward, it would almost be on par with Arrogate's recent stunning setbacks.

He will face just four other entrants in the race, the most notable being Neolithic, who finished third in both the Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes (G1) and Dubai World Cup before he was sidelined with a respiratory illness.

Trained by Todd Pletcher, Neolithic was back in the winner's circle earlier this month, after he rallied to win a seven-furlong allowance race at Saratoga by a neck. The son of Harlan's Holiday has yet to win a stakes in his 10 starts but gets a distance more to his liking on Saturday as he makes his latest upset attempt.

"We're going to move forward from that race and run a mile and an eighth, which is more in his wheelhouse," Pletcher said. "Gun Runner is very good, so we'll do the best we can."

Graded stakes winner War Story finished fourth last time out in the Whitney after his rabbit, Cautious Giant, did little to Gun Runner other than give him a souvenir. Owner Ron Paolucci planned to enter 7-year-old May B—who previously ran in claiming and starter allowance races—in the Woodward field as a pacesetter for War Story, but Paolucci posted on his Twitter account that the stewards would not accept the gelding's entry.