Breeders’ Cup Moments: Gun Runner & beyond

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When you spend two days at Breeders’ Cup doing interviews and commentary for Horse Racing Radio Network you walk about 12 miles, talk to too many people to remember and emerge with little more than snippets of moments from 13 championship races.

And that’s what’s left at the end of the 34th Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club in Del Mar, Cal. Friday and Saturday.

Moments. Magical moments. Here’s a few.

• Gun Runner. Nobody was better, nobody delivered on a bigger stage, nobody earned more (financially and otherwise). The chestnut son of Candy Ride clinched the Horse of the Year title with his fifth win of 2017, and did it while setting contested fractions and getting pushed throughout by Collected.

After toiling inside a stalker every bit as game, the 4-year-old had every right to quit after a mile and finish a tough second. Instead, Gun Runner found a little more when headed by Collected and kicked away – grinding out a 2 1/4-length win. From afar, little fazes Gun Runner. He’s chill in the paddock, easy in the post parade and fast enough to race at the top level without even making jockey Florent Geroux work in the early stages. Gun Runner races on a loose rein until it’s really time to go and then he lowers his already low head a little more and puts away another win. At Saratoga, an opponent’s shoe got stuck in Gun Runner’s tail and he kept running. At Del Mar Saturday, he ran the second-fastest opening quarter-mile in Classic history (:22.50) – under outside pressure – and won.

At the Eclipse Awards ceremony in January, he will become the fourth Steve Asmussen-trained Horse of the Year in 11 years after Curlin (2007 and 2008) and Rachel Alexandra (2009). The trainer, assistant Scott Blasi and the team do something right.

“It feels really good,” Blasi said on the track immediately after the win. “The horse has just made my job really easy, we’ve been out here six weeks. He’s done everything right and . . . he’s Horse of the Year.

“How he acted in the paddock today, just everything about him. He’s going to be a great sire, he’s a supstar.”

Blasi watched the race unfold and, like anyone, felt a little nervous about the early going as Collected – one of four horses from the Bob Baffert stable – tested Gun Runner and Frenchman Geroux early and often.

“Fast fractions,” Blasi said. “Frenchie’s got so much confidence in him. He gave him a little bit of a breather around the turn but this horse accelerates on his left lead. When he turned for home and switched leads, he was gone.”

• Arrogate. Don’t hold a bad ending to a too-short career against Juddmonte Farm’s gray colt. He strung together four of the best efforts racing has seen in a while in winning the Travers and Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2016 and Pegasus World Cup and Dubai World Cup in 2017.

Somehow, he goes off to stud without winning a Horse of the Year crown in either season. Seems wrong.

Saturday, as the Classic field warmed up, Juddmonte’s Garrett O’Rourke spoke for his horse before the race and just hoped for one more A-plus effort from Arrogate. Not for financial reasons, though a Classic win would have delivered $3.3 million in purse money, the older male championship, a Horse of the Year title and who knows how much more in stud fees. O’Rourke just wanted it for Arrogate, because he’s a champion, because he did everything they asked, because it was the horse’s last opportunity in the spotlight.

“When you’re as good as Arrogate you are expected to be not just be good but exceptional,” O’Rourke said. “We really are hoping for another exceptional performance. I think the track is something that worries us, that it might not be ideal for him, but really great horses overcome and fingers crossed that he will.”

Ah well, wasn’t meant to be. Horses are carbon-based life forms you know.

Arrogate broke sharply to his left from the inside stall, giving up a few lengths of track position and left him playing catch up from the start. He found a spot going into the first turn where you’d think he had a chance, but he just didn’t quicken from there. The Arrogate of 2016 would have made up the difference and hooked Gun Runner by the eighth pole with the win going to whoever stepped up another notch from there. He wound up fifth, in a dead heat with Gunnevera, beaten about 6 lengths after being behind about 10 lengths through 6 furlongs.

Arrogate heads off to stud, one of the best ever in some books and certainly one of the most brilliant. After winning in the desert in Dubai in March, his final three starts – all losses – came at Del Mar. The oceanside track was clearly not his favorite. He went 1-for-4 there, 6-for-7 everywhere else.

• Forever Unbridled and Dallas Stewart. They were amazing in the Distaff. Well deserved for a cool mare and a cooler trainer. See Friday’s recap.

• Ralph Nicks. Imagine a trailer parked near a racetrack more than 30 years ago. Mike Smith, an 18-year-old jockey just embarking on the first steps of a Hall of Fame career, scoffs at the work ethic of his sleepy roommate and folds up an already uncomfortable bed – with the roommate in the covers.

The kid in the bed was trying to be a jockey too, only wasn’t doing as well as Smith. No, he was losing races instead of winning, losing a battle of inches and pounds, sleeping in instead of working out. The kid in the bed, Nicks, soon gave it up and took the first steps toward becoming a trainer. He won his first race in that career in 2004. Saturday, he and Smith won a Breeders’ Cup race together. It was the first for Nicks, the record 26th for Smith.

On the racetrack Saturday, as Caledonia Road galloped back after winning the Juvenile Fillies, Nicks barely kept a lid on his emotions for a quick interview and then he couldn’t as tears rolled out from under his sunglasses.

“Well, it’s one of the dreams,” he said just before a long pause and a stifled cry. “Coming up the way I did, to be on this stage, amazing.”

Nicks, the son of trainer Morris Nicks, rode races at 16, worked for his father and joined Bill Mott’s barn at 22 and stayed for 13 years. In 2003, he left Mott to become a jockey’s agent. He took out his own trainer’s license in 2004, and has been at it ever since – up, down, good, bad, all over the place. Nicks won two graded stakes with Cool Conductor in 2005, and one each in 2006, 2009, 2010. Aubby K won a couple in 2013 and Speechify won one in 2014. But Saturday’s win was his first graded stakes score since then.

Smith loved coming through for his friend.

“It’s a little extra special because me and Ralph Nicks grew up together,” the jockey said. “It’s his first Breeders’ Cup. He was an apprentice when I was riding and I used to fold him up in his foldout couch every morning because he wouldn’t get up in the morning and now look at this. We won a race with him training and me riding. It’s pretty special.”

Later, Nicks told a story about former employer Bill Mott coming back to the barn at Del Mar to offer congratulations. Mott said something to the effect of, “You’ve got one. Some feeling right?”

Way better than getting folded up in a bed.

• Mike Smith. He told that story about Nicks and the bed after winning aboard Caledonia Road, but the best moment came a few minutes earlier. On the horsepath between the track and the paddock, Smith gave some print interviews, signed a program and – pressed for time – stepped toward the jocks’ room. Where he bumped into Louie Gomez, father of Hall of Fame jockey Garrett Gomez who died late last year. Smith hugged Louie, slapped him on the back and then stepped back and rolled down the top of his right boot. There, on the inside of the boot was scribbled “Go Go” as a tribute to his friend, peer and competitor. Go Go’s father and Smith hugged again, a little longer this time.

• Trainer Pete Miller and Rockingham Ranch. Now that’s how you do a Breeders’ Cup. The California-based trainer/owner combination went 1-2 in the Turf Sprint as Stormy Liberal ran down Richard’s Boy. Worth $720,000 in purses, the exacta touched off a celebration worthy of a Stanley Cup-clinching goal.

“It’s unbelievable. I’m overwhelmed, I’m overwhelmed with emotion and joy,” said Miller after his first Breeders’ Cup win. “You know, my home track and I’m just thankful.”

He was in mid-sentence when he got swept away by friends, partners, a TV crew.

Rockingham owner Gary Hartunian, who put up $100,000 to nominate Richard’s Boy to the race, led a crowd to the winner’s circle and sounded much like Miller.

“I’m in shock,” he said. “We haven’t won too many races for the last couple months so I’m just kind of out here to have some fun and enjoy the beautiful town of Del Mar. Pete told me at dinner, ‘Home court means a lot out here.’ He was real confident at dinner.”

Hartunian said his partner in some horses, David Bernsen, hit the pick five with Stormy Liberal to the tune of $61,620.60 for a 50-cent ticket.

And then the day just got weird.

Three races later, Rockingham, Bernsen and Miller won again – this time with Roy H in the Sprint. Watching Miller watch the race should have come with a warning. Stationed on the horse path and staring at the infield big screen as NBC cameras zoomed in, the trainer talked his horse through every second of the 1:08.61 it took to navigate 6 furlongs.

As Roy H and Kent Desormeaux drafted outside horses down the back, Miller kept it simple. “Sit there, Roy, you’re good. Sit there.”

As Imperial Hint led Roy H around the turn, Miller turned self-help coach, “That’s good, Roy. Relax, Roy. Sit and relax, Roy. It’s gonna work, Roy. You’re doing good, Roy.”

Roy H must have been channeling the positive vibes. Imperial Hint threw his best shot in the stretch, but couldn’t shake Roy H. The 5-year-old countered and Miller nearly blew a gasket. He shouted himself hoarse(r), pumped his clenched fists, jumped up and down, ran in a circle. The Velcro on the blood-pressure cuff would not have held.

“Come on, Roy . . . Come on, Roy . . . Come on, Roy . . . Come on, Roy . . . Come on, Roy.”

Finally, at the wire – with Roy H a length up on Imperial Hint – Miller went all Jim Valvano and looked for someone to hug. He found Hartunian, found another guy, another six guys and charged to the winner’s circle.

• Imperial Hint. Sometimes you run a winning race and lose. Parx Racing shipper, the fastest horse in Pennsylvania, nearly gave trainer Luis Carvajal Jr. his first Breeders’ Cup win – rolling through fractions of :21.82, :44.61 and :56.56 in the Sprint and carrying his speed through the stretch before yielding to Roy H’s late rally.

It’s been quite a ride for the 15-hand bay. He opened 2017 with a win in Laurel Park’s Fire Plug Stakes in January, won the General George at Laurel in February, got invited to Dubai’s Golden Shaheen in March, missed a flight due to weather, arrived in Dubai late and sick, got pneumonia in the desert, didn’t run and flew home. Away from the races for a little less than five months, the Florida-bred son of Imperialism returned with two summer wins – in the Smile Sprint at Gulfstream Park and Don Levine Memorial at Parx – to improve to 4-for-4 on the year. Next came Del Mar, where he dazzled onlookers with his training, attitude and vertically challenged frame. In the ultimate, it’s-not-the-size-of-the-dog-in-the-fight moment Imperial Hint nearly landed the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

Carvajal, whose father Luis Sr. was a jockey in Chile before being paralyzed in a fall, trains a bit more than a handful of horses at Parx and came into the Sprint with seven wins in 36 starts this year. Miller collected his 103rd win on the year in the Sprint.

Afterward, Carvajal stood on the track and reflected on his horse’s effort.

“For this little horse to bring me here to California and the Breeders’ Cup I’m very proud of my little horse,” said Carvajal. “I know he has a big heart and he has proved it today. I’m so happy.”

Carvajal galloped horses in New York (for trainers Angel Penna Jr., Leo O’Brien and others), worked for trainer Bob Durso for years, nearly gave up racing for a career as a pilot. Carvajal became a trainer when Durso retired after heart surgery in 2006. The plan was for Carvajal to take over the barn, with guidance and a leg up from Durso and his owners, but Durso died of bone cancer in 2007.

Carvajal won 16 races in 2008, but has topped 10 just once since. Back in February, after Imperial Hint won the General George to give Carvajal his first graded stakes win, thought about the possibilities.

“I want to come back here in another year or a couple years and hear, ‘Oh, I know Luis Carvajal. Yeahhh, I know that guy.’ ”

Thanks to Imperial Hint, Carvajal has a chance.

• Lady Eli. Like Arrogate, her career didn’t end the way the storybook said it was supposed to, with a rough-trip seventh in the Filly and Mare Turf, but that’s OK.

The 5-year-old mare made 14 starts, won 10 times, finished second three times, defied death by overcoming laminitis and walked off into retirement. She got out, when some don’t. Trained by Chad Brown for Head of Plains Partners, Lady Eli lost a shoe and suffered some cuts on her legs. The excuses were there, for a horse who never needed them.

“She’s our No. 1, our favorite, so that was a really, really tough loss,” said owner Sol Kumin afterward. “If you’re losing 70-percent of the time in this game you’re doing extremely well, so you get to be a good loser but it stung a little bit. She lost her shoe in the first turn, got bumped out of the gate . . . those are generally excuses from a loser, but it was a little bit sad. We had a big crew here and I think a lot of people wanted to see her cross that line first, but she’s given us all we could ever ask for. I’m just thankful we were able to be associated with her. It was very, very special.”

Lady Eli was withdrawn from Keeneland’s November breeding stock sale because of the cuts and will recuperate at Hill ‘n’ Dale Farm to be prepped for another sale.

Lady Eli won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf in 2014 and was second in the Filly and Mare Turf in 2016 (after overcoming laminitis). She won Grade 1 stakes at 2, 3, 4 and 5 and earned $2,959,800.

Along the way she gave racing a heroine. Thanks.

• • •

In the interests of getting some sleep – and letting you do the same – we’ll come back with more and try to put a wrap on it all. In case we don’t, the weekened included:

• A double by Godolphin/Darley homebreds in the Filly and Mare Turf with English-bred Wuheida from the barn of Charlie Appleby and the Turf with another English-bred Talismanic for Andre Fabre.

• Veteran jockey John Velazquez winning a pair – aboard Forever Unbridled in the Distaff on Friday and World Approval in the Mile on Saturday. In both cases, he used the historic saddle given to him by agent Angel Cordero. The old-school full-tree saddle has seen plenty of racing history including Kentucky Derby wins aboard Bold Forbes, Animal Kingdom and Always Dreaming.

Velazquez also wore an orange band around his right leg on both days, to show support of 13-year-old nephew Liam O’Brien who was hospitalized for depression and an eating disorder after being bullied.

• World Approval made his case for an Eclipse Award with a win in the Mile, his fifth stakes win of the year. Live Oak Plantation’s homebred turned back European Lancaster Bomber and gave star broodmare Win Approval her second win in the race. Her son, Miesque’s Approval, won the 2006 Mile for Live Oak and trainer Marty Wolfson. Another son, Za Approval, finished second in the 2013 Mile.

Mark Casse trains World Approval and picked up another milestone win with his son Norm as the stable assistant. Norm Casse will open his own stable next year.

• Irish trainer Aidan O’Brien won the Juvenile Turf with Mendelssohn, a half-brother to champion Beholder and leading sire Into Mischief. The $3 million yearling purchase scored by a length in a field of 14 for jockey Ryan Moore. One of the world’s leading trainers, Irishman O’Brien helped lead the horse to the track and also gave each of his starters a once-over with a brush in the paddock.

• Trainer Chad Brown and owner eFive Racing won two races, Friday’s Juvenile Fillies Turf with Rushing Fall and Saturday’s Juvenile with Good Magic. The latter, co-owned by Stonestreet Thoroughbreds, came into the race as a maiden, and left as the favorite for the 2018 Kentucky Derby after winning by 4 1/4 lengths. Heavily favored Bolt d’Oro finished third.

• New York-bred Bar Of Gold returned $135.40 in winning the Filly and Mare Sprint for owners/breeders Chester and Mary Broman and trainer John Kimmel. The Bromans watched from the outside rail just past the finish line and enjoyed every second of the historic win. She won the Yaddo on Turf at Saratoga this summer, finished second in the Presque Isle Downs Masters on synthetic in September and was sixth in the Spinster on dirt at Keeneland in October.

The 5-year-old mare gave Kimmel his first Breeders’ Cup win, getting up by a nose over Ami’s Mesa (who won the Masters) for jockey Irad Ortiz Jr.

• Finally, Del Mar might have been the biggest winner on the weekend. The first-time host did pretty much everything right and wowed guests from every segment of the industry – from owners and trainers to fans sitting on trackside benches. See you next time.