Farm boy Gun Runner adapts to new life

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As brilliant as he is Gun Runner does not talk, so Three Chimneys Farm stallion manager Sandy Hatfield put his thoughts about retirement into words Thursday afternoon.

“Whatever you want to do is fine,” she said, paraphrasing the 2017 Horse of the Year’s opinion on turnout, a visit to the breeding shed and a life without a daily gallop or someone walking up with a saddle. “It’s not a big deal. Show me what to do.”

The chestnut 5-year-old finished his racing career in style by winning the Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park Saturday, two days after being crowned Horse of the Year and champion older male of 2017 at the Eclipse Awards ceremony. Gun Runner spent Saturday night at Gulfstream in south Florida, then flew to Kentucky Sunday morning. Hatfield was on the plane with the horse and they arrived at Three Chimneys about 1 p.m. Gun Runner went for a short walk, picked some grass and got acquainted with a new place. Monday, he was turned out in a paddock from 7:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. Tuesday was more of the same (albeit with about half of Monday’s tranquilizer), though he spent his afternoon as the center of attention at a lunch for farm employees. Wednesday looked a lot like Tuesday (only no tranquilizer) with a visit to the breeding shed for his first test breeding. Thursday included another turnout session – buck, play, roll, eat grass, look at things – and another test breeding.

As it turned out, the tranquilizer probably wasn’t necessary, even that first day, but nobody takes chances with fresh-off-the-racetrack horses in their early days at a farm – especially champions who earned $16 million.

“As much as some people would like to know if he could win a steeplechase, we didn’t want to find out if he could jump a four-board fence,” said Three Chimneys chief operating officer Chris Baker with a laugh. “He ate grass, ran around a little, rolled, played, was really pretty damn sensible.”

As he did in his racing career, which included 12 wins in 19 starts at 11 racetracks, Gun Runner responded to the new situation the way he answered the cues of jockey Florent Geroux in five consecutive Grade 1 wins from June 2017 to last week at Gulfstream.

Baker called the smooth transition the horse’s hallmark.

“If you look at this horse, that’s him,” Baker said. “He’s compliant in a race. Florent can ask him to give all the speed he has and then ask him to switch off and he switches off. He’s obviously very tractable and an intelligent horse, but I think it says a lot about him and how he handles himself.”

Hatfield agreed, and called Gun Runner a model student.

“They all shift gears, but it’s very cool to have a horse walk in and do what he’s supposed to do in 10 minutes because they don’t all do that,” said Hatfield. “He’s been great. He’s a cool dude and an awesome horse to be around.”

Gun Runner is in a short quarantine period where he’s not in the barn with the farm’s other six stallions (Caleb’s Posse, Fast Anna, Palace Malice, Sky Mesa, Strong Mandate and Will Take Charge). He’s been stabled at several racetracks with trainer Steve Asmussen’s horses in the last year, around hundreds of other Thoroughbreds, and it’s just standard practice to keep horses isolated from the others on a farm for a while. He’s also not on the same turnout schedule as the other stallions. They go out at about 1 p.m. and stay out all night. He’s in at night, partly because it’s all new and partly because of his lack of a winter coat. Most active racehorses, especially those based in the south, are clipped.

“We’ve got a blanket on him, but it’s still pretty chilly here,” Hatfield said. “We brought some of his hay and his feed with us from Florida and we’re transitioning little by little. It’s a big change. It’s all different and you want to make it as smooth as possible.”

Gun Runner spent a few days at Three Chimneys after the Breeders’ Cup last fall, so Hatfield got to know the horse and his handlers and knew what to expect.

In a word, class.

“He’s very smart, professional in every way,” she said. “Turnout went well. That will be his paddock and he’s next to Will Take Charge so he’ll have a buddy. The teaser is in the barn with him so he’s not alone. He knows he’s the man, but he’s not too cocky about it. They’re all a little cocky or they wouldn’t be where they are.”

Owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys, Gun Runner is at the top of the list when it comes to new stallions heading into 2018. He will stand for $70,000, and – as Baker put it – “demand exceeds supply.” Three Chimneys will send 14 mares including major names Love And Pride, Malibu Prayer, House Of Danzing and Pure Clan. Winchell will send another dozen, all top class. The son of Candy Ride will get every chance to be a top stallion.

For now, he’s just a horse – learning something new. Breeding season opens in about two weeks, a far tighter timeframe for most new stallions who typically arrive at a stud farm months before starting their new careers.

“He doesn’t have a lot of time to transition, but like everything else he’s done, he’s handling it,” Baker said. “He figured out what we want, he does his best. My guess is, now he’s thinking this farm life ain’t all bad.”

You can almost hear him say it.

Gun Runner meets the team at Three Chimneys. Gayle Ewadinger photo