Breeders’ Cup Saturday: Classic showdown

- -

Major questions hang over Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar. Two stand out more than the rest and focus squarely on the main contenders for the $6 million centerpiece of the two-day World Championships program.

The first is whether Arrogate be the same Arrogate we’ve come to know from last year’s Classic and Travers and this year’s Pegasus and Dubai World Cups? The second is whether Gun Runner can turn the tables on Arrogate, who left him behind in his record-setting Travers and ran him down in this year’s Dubai World Cup.

Sure, there are more angles in this year’s Classic. Will this be the year Aidan O’Brien wins? He runs Churchill and War Decree. Perhaps it will be one of the “other” three Bob Baffert horses that get it done; he also sends out Collected, West Coast and Mubtaahij. Or maybe it will be another member of the much-maligned 3-year-old division put his flag in the ground and say the criticism is unwarranted. Longshots Gunnevera and Pavel are nothing without a puncher’s chance to do just that.

But really it boils down to Arrogate vs. Gun Runner. That’s the matchup in lights, the race for Horse of the Year and champion older male in the balance. Each brings glistening credentials and significant questions to be addressed in 1 1/4-mile Classic. Arrogate posted those two major wins in races worth a combined $22 million in January and March; then he lost back-to-back starts at Del mar in July and August. Gun Runner lost to Arrogate both times they met but shows all the signs that he’s better now, more mature and with the ability to leave his opposition in tatters. The major question is how good was the opposition he faced in three straight Grade 1 wins this summer in the Stephen Foster, Whitney and Woodward.

The Saratoga Special covered Gun Runner’s victories in the Whitney and Woodward and caught up with one of the people who helped raise Arrogate at Clearsky Farm in Kentucky. We were also on hand for West Coast’s professional victory in the Travers

The days are now down to hours and minutes until racing’s biggest day – Breeders’ Cup Saturday. Eight races lead up to the Classic, which unquestionably is the centerpiece event of the rich extravaganza at Del Mar. We thought you might want a refresher on Gun Runner, Arrogate and West Coast.

Perhaps you’ve already read these stories, written by Eclipse Award winners Sean and Joe Clancy, perhaps now.

Either way, enjoy them and enjoy the Breeders’ Cup.

 

Saratoga Memories – Arrogate

Every horse starts somewhere, even Saratoga superstars. Keeneland Sales helps The Special look back at some memorable graded stakes winners – and Keeneland graduates – at the Spa. We’ll look back, re-connect and dig up some memories. Enjoy.

By Joe Clancy

Every foal brings high hopes, but nobody would dare even dream of a Thoroughbred like Arrogate. This time last year, if you were reading in the morning, you might not have even heard of the gray colt with three non-stakes wins in four starts in California.

By the end of Travers Day 2016, however, everybody knew Arrogate. Juddmonte Farms’ gray demon ran 1 1/4 miles faster than any horse – ever – at Saratoga Race Course in dominating the Travers Stakes. He won by 13 1/2 lengths in 1:59.36, laying waste to a dozen other 3-year-olds, and made everybody a believer.

“How about that?” his trainer Bob Baffert said after watching the race with his wife Jill. “Jill said, ‘They’re going too fast,’ I said, ‘This is a running son of a…’ ”

That’s one way to describe him.

Jockey Mike Smith, on board for the historic win, agreed with that assessment and tried to explain it afterward.

“That was freaky,” he said in an understatement. “He took off when I asked him. I thought, ‘All right, all right,’ then I asked him one more time, ‘Oh, that’s good enough,’ but you’ve got (Preakness winner) Exaggerator and all those closers, man, you just never know when one’s going to come down the middle of the track, but I said, ‘If they catch him, they’ve got to be unbelievable.’ ”

They weren’t. He was.

Arrogate stayed freaky, adding a Breeders’ Cup Classic score over California Chrome in November. The champion 3-year-old lost the Horse of the Year vote to his older rival, beat him again in Gulfstream Park’s Pegasus World Cup in January and then added the Dubai World Cup in March. Back-to-back losses at Del Mar this summer, in the San Diego Handicap and Pacific Classic, added some question marks but did little to diminish Arrogate’s reputation. Bred in Kentucky by Clearsky Farms, he’s won seven of 10 starts and earned $17.3 million.

People dream of such things, right? Not quite.

“We didn’t expect that, didn’t expect any of this,” said Barry Robinette, the Clearsky farm manager, in February. “You’d be greedy if you expected all this. Congratulations to Juddmonte and the whole team.”

Arrogate grew up like the other foals on the Cleary family’s 267-acre farm along Russell Cave Road in Lexington. Founded in 2009 by Irishman Eamon Cleary, Clearsky breeds for the sales market. In 2010, Cleary spent $170,000 to buy the stakes-winning Distorted Humor filly Bubbler as a broodmare prospect. In 2012, Bubbler went to Unbridled’s Song. She delivered a colt the following April.

Cleary, whose business success took him to New Zealand, Australia and South America among other nations, died of cancer in 2012 and didn’t get to see the best horse bred by Clearsky. His sons Bernard and Eamonn have continued the mission along with Robinette.

Arrogate went to Keeneland September as part of the farm’s consignment.

“He was one of those types that always made you pay attention,” said Robinette. “Like a lot of the good ones, he had a lot of class and manners. They never really get into much trouble. It’s the hard heads you can probably worry about.”

As part of a plan to relaunch a division in California, and take a step toward producing a Kentucky Derby horse, Juddmonte hired Baffert who (along with agent Donato Lanni) scouted yearlings for the farm at Keeneland September in 2012. They bought four the first year and three the next. The 2014 class included eight. One cost $560,000 – and became a horse of the world even though he didn’t debut until April of his 3-year-old season.

“He was always a classy horse who really started to come together toward the end of September before the sale,” said Robinette. “You could tell he was going to do well when he got there.”

But not this well.

“We love to watch him run,” said Robinette. “He has such a stride. That’s the first thing I noticed when I saw him run. The way he stretches his legs and pushes himself off his hind end. He was athletic but as he gets older he just keeps getting better and better.”

  

Gun Blazing

Asmussen star rules Grade 1 Whitney

By Sean Clancy

Steve Asmussen walked out of the paddock, put his left arm around his oldest son, Keith, whispered a few words, 3-5 odds of Gun Runner hovered from above the betting windows to the left. Asmussen zigged past Reggie and the Red Hot Feetwarmers, and kept walking the long, meandering walk of an expectant horse trainer through an expectant crowd. A man standing on a cooler yelled A-s-m-u-s-s-e-n-n-n-n like it had 20 syllables, not that Asmussen heard him.

Father and son rode the escalator, as a beer-carrying fan asked his beer-swigging friend, “Is he going to get off the duck?” Not that Asmussen heard him as he turned left and walked across the back of the grandstand, turned right at the ATM machines and down the steps of section C of the clubhouse box seats, folding into the center of a front-row box, seven panels down from the sixteenth-pole, his wife Julie to his left, Keith and his youngest son, Erik, settled to his right, his brother, Cash just behind his left shoulder. The rest of his family, including his mother, Marilyn, filled the box to his left. Asmussen leaned forward on the ledge of the box, elbows taking the brunt, and settled in to watch Gun Runner do what he does best.

And, wow, did Gun Runner do what he does best, trouncing six overmatched rivals with a flawless score in the Grade 1 Whitney, the feature on a star-studded Saturday at Saratoga.

So flawless, the Asmussen celebration started as Gun Runner ripped past the eighth pole. Julie leapt to her feet and hugged her husband, Keith and Erik high-fived each other and fell into a hug with Cash. Steve Asmussen, subdued, watched motionless and emotionless (at least visually) as Gun Runner ripped past the wire, then he stood, kissed his wife, his brother, his boys and grabbed his mother’s hand to walk toward the winner’s circle, high-fiving Three Chimneys’ Grant Williamson on the way. Three $2 bettors stood and clapped, Asmussen, allowing for acknowledgment that he couldn’t muster minutes before, waved and thanked them. Amazing what a winner will do.

“He’s incredible. He’s just so fast. His action is so beautiful,” Asmussen said, as he entered the winner’s circle for the first time all meet.

Owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm and ridden by Florent Geroux, the 4-year-old son of Candy Ride stalked longshot Cautious Giant, took over with ease and powered to a 5 1/4-length score over second-choice Keen Ice and fifth-choice Breaking Lucky. Making his 14th consecutive start in a graded stakes, Gun Runner won for the ninth time and increased his earnings to $5,288,500.

“To come here to Saratoga and win the Whitney is an unbelievable thrill,” said Ron Winchell from the winner’s circle. “It’s one of those races that you would love to win, it’s a very difficult race to win, but with Gun Runner, he gives you confidence that you’re coming in with a very consistent horse and winning is a good probability, but I also know from history in horse racing, you don’t want to count on that win until it happens.”

It happened.

Gun Runner broke crisply from stall 6 as second-choice Keen Ice stumbled from post 5. Geroux glanced to his left three times, seeing Cautious Giant, the rabbit for War Story, and Breaking Lucky staking their spots inside the favorite. Paco Lopez pressured Cautious Giant to the lead as Luis Contreras eased out of the fray, settling Breaking Lucky in third through the first quarter mile in :23.89. Gun Runner loped easily outside Cautious Giant through a half in :48.31. Into the turn, Geroux allowed Gun Runner to take over, gliding past Cautious Giant and opening up quickly on Breaking Lucky.

By the middle of the turn, through 6 furlongs in 1:11.37, Gun Runner had the Whitney at his mercy as Breaking Lucky churned with an impossible hand and 2015 Travers winner Keen Ice chipped at an impossible margin. Passing the quarter pole, Gun Runner lowed into another gear (perhaps, second to third) as Geroux pumped aggressively, hand riding the chestnut colt past the eighth pole. Geroux switched his un-cocked whip from his right hand to his left, pulling it through cocked, smacking Gun Runner once and then turning it back down as fast as he had picked it up. With a stray horse shoe dangling in his tail, Gun Runner strolled under the wire, clicking off 9 furlongs in 1:47.71.

“He’s just incredible. He does everything so perfect. He always breaks sharp, he always takes a good position. He relaxes off horses. If he wants to go to the lead, he can take it. If somebody wants to go, he is fine. If nobody wants to go, it’s fine,” Geroux said. “Many people say he’s been going on the lead and honestly I’ve ridden him in his last 10 starts I’ve probably ridden him seven different ways. On the lead, off the pace, inside, outside, all kinds of different scenarios.”

Gun Runner won his debut at Churchill Downs in September 2015. He came back a month later to win an allowance race at Keeneland. He finished his juvenile season with a fourth in the Kentucky Jockey Club. He opened his 3-year-old season by winning the Risen Star and the Louisiana Derby before finishing third in the Kentucky Derby.

“I never thought he would lose a race,” Asmussen said. “On Derby morning, we thought we were winning the Derby.”

Undeterred, Gun Runner bounced out of the Derby to win the Matt Winn, then finish fifth in the Haskell, third in the Travers, second in the Pennsylvania Derby. With a choice of the Breeders’ Cup Classic or the Dirt Mile, connections chose the latter where Gun Runner finished second. Three weeks later, he earned his first Grade 1 win, dominating the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs.

Asmussen always marvels at the tasks given top horses, every time they produce a strong effort, they’re rewarded with a sterner test.

“That was nice, now, can you jump higher?” Asmussen explained.

For his 4-year-old campaign, the jumps were raised as Gun Runner won the Grade 3 Razorback at Oaklawn Park in February before traveling to Dubai to finish a gallant second behind Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup. Three months later, Gun Runner trounced rivals in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs.

“He has incrementally gotten better, which is the best scenario in the world, he was a talented-as-hell 2-year-old, a very good 3-year-old,” Asmussen said. “Florent said it best, ‘Every time I’ve gotten off him, I’ve gotten off a better horse.’ How awesome is that? That’s what separates them.”

Like he’s done all year, Asmussen credited the owners, first, for bringing Gun Runner back for his 4-year-old season and, second, for their steady hand at the helm.

“The owners have had the ultimate confidence without the arrogance of needing to prove it to anybody right now. That’s their approach, they don’t overreact when it doesn’t go your way, like the Haskell, they just stay the course. What? What?” Asmussen said. “When they made the decision to come back at 4, you run in the Mile, knowing it won’t knock you out, you come back in the Clark for his Grade 1 and you’re secure. All that has helped us get here. They deserve to have him and be in this position because at no point did they not have the faith.”

 

Punching The Clock
Favorite Gun Runner goes for Grade 1 sweep in Woodward

By Joe Clancy

Early Friday morning, Scott Blasi sat on the lead pony, sipped from a travel cup and waited to escort Gun Runner to the Oklahoma Training Track. Trainer Steve Asmussen’s assistant nodded toward the chestnut colt, the 2-5 morning-line favorite for today’s Grade 1 Woodward Stakes.

“You can set your watch by him,” Blasi said. “He gets up, trains, has a little nap, gets up, eats, has another nap, gets up, eats some hay …”

The watch said 5:51 Friday as Gun Runner stepped out of his stall – third one down from the office – for his final training session before the $750,000 Woodward. By 6:01, he was on the horsepath alongside Blasi and the pony. Two minutes after that, he was on the track. Wearing a blue saddle pad with his name on the side, Gun Runner jogged straight off from the corner gap by Fifth Avenue. Blasi loosened the pony strap and Gun Runner eased into a canter, then a gallop far off in the morning darkness. At 6:07, he rolled past the gap – quiet, easy, no fuss. He’d have gotten quick on the long run down the back but pulled up, rejoined the pony and walked home from the gap in the middle of the backstretch. At 6:16, the earner of more than $5.2 million came around the corner past McGaughey, Clement, Mott then split the rest of the Oklahoma barns at a slow walk on a loose lead from Blasi. By 6:20, he was untacked, under a white Kentucky Derby 2016 cooler, then to the wash pad – legs, face, a quick once over in the chill. Blasi moved on to the next set, and Gun Runner spent the next 25 minutes walking, on the ring, staring at the coffee truck, listening to a chirping squirrel who went from tree to tree to barn roof while probably wondering when his world would quiet down.

Soon, squirrel soon. For now, it’s still time for the horses. One, in particular, has plenty at stake today.

Owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm, Gun Runner attempts to sweep Saratoga’s major dirt races for older horses after winning the Whitney Aug. 5. Since the Woodward moved upstate in 2006, the double has been turned just once – by Lawyer Ron in 2007. With regular jockey Florent Geroux, Gun Runner breaks from post two in a field of five. Qatar Racing and Starlight Racing’s Neolithic breaks from the rail for trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey Jose Ortiz at 6-1. Another Pletcher runner, Paul Pompa Jr.’s Rally Cry, occupies post three for John Velazquez at 5-2. Loooch Racing Stable’s, Glen Ellis’ and Imginary Stable’s War Story breaks from post four for trainer Jorge Navarro and jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. at 8-1. Parx Racing-based owner/trainer Uriah St. Lewis comes back with Discreet Lover, who breaks from the outside for Manny Franco at 30-1. Loooch Racing also tried to enter May B as a pacemaker for War Story, but the entry was denied by the stewards.

The small field flatters Gun Runner, whose last two starts were easy wins and his lone defeat in his last five starts came when finishing second behind champion Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup in March. Bred by Besilu Stable in Kentucky, the 4-year-old finished first or second in his last seven including stakes wins in the Whitney, Stephen Foster, Razorback and Clark. His last non-exacta finish came when he finished third in the 2016 Travers.

“He’s so efficient,” Blasi said about the horse’s strengths. “People talk about a rabbit (pacemaker) and this and that. It doesn’t matter for him. We didn’t expect the horse to show the speed he did in the (Dubai) World Cup and he laid off him, tracking. Geroux knows him, he’s worked him in company and worked him enough to know about him.”

Gun Runner wouldn’t make anyone stop and stare walking by in the morning, except for that saddle towel, though horsemen marvel at him when he moves. Blasi said efficient, but it’s also fast. Head a little low, legs reaching out in big strides, Gun Runner runs like a Kenyan distance runner. There’s always acceleration. In the Whitney, Gun Runner sat off longshot pacesetter Cautious Giant, handled a three-wide run around the first turn without blinking, took over coming to the half-mile pole and was never seriously challenged while winning by 5 1/4 lengths – all on a long hold from Geroux. Somehow, Gun Runner’s tail managed to collect a stray horseshoe from Cautious Giant leaving the backside but that was the only real drama.

“It was,” Geroux said with a laugh when asked if the race was as easy at it looked. “Pretty much a public workout.”

Afterward, the jockey said he’d ridden Gun Runner “seven different ways” in his last 10 starts. It’s been 13 rides, and the tactics haven’t changed that much though he’s won from inside, outside, made the lead in the Kentucky Derby, led the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile late, wired the Razorback and Stephen Foster.

Geroux got on board for Gun Runner’s fourth start in February 2016. They won the Risen Star together at Fair Grounds, and added the Louisiana Derby next time. They finished third behind Nyquist and Exaggerator in the Kentucky Derby.

“I was at Fair Grounds, I was doing pretty good and I was starting to ride for Steve Asmussen and he gave me that horse,” said the jockey after the Whitney. “I won his first start on his back in the Risen Star and right after that the Louisiana Derby. He took us to the Kentucky Derby and he finished a very good third. He’s been very good this year. When you keep on winning, it’s very hard to take you off horses. It’s just a great connection between Gun Runner and myself.”

With a small field and a heavy favorite, the Woodward could end up a battle of riding tactics, though Gun Runner appears to have no real kryptonite.

“He’s one that’s tactical enough and doesn’t have to have the lead and doesn’t appear there’s a lot of chinks in his armor,” said Pletcher, whose entries surround the favorite in the starting gate.

Like Gun Runner, Pletcher’s two come off wins over the track. Third to Arrogate and the Woodward favorite in Dubai, Neolithic got off the bench with a late-running win going 7 furlongs in the Whitney Day finale. The 4-year-old son of Harlan’s Holiday is 3-for-10 lifetime with a bankroll of more than $2 million thanks to thirds in the two richest races in the world (Dubai in March and the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream in January).

“I thought he ran well considering he was doing something that was not his best thing, going seven-eighths,” said Pletcher. “We needed to get him here and my choices were to run in that or a mile-and-an-eighth race and I just felt like he wasn’t ready to go a mile-and-an-eighth. From what I’ve seen, the way he’s trained, I think we’re bringing him into this as good as he can be.”

Rally Cry dominated the restricted Alydar Stakes going 1 1/8 miles the day after the Whitney. The 4-year-old son of Uncle Mo became a stakes winner that day and confirmed an opinion for Pletcher.

“We finally got to do what we felt like he always wanted to do which is run two turns and get into that good rhythm,” said the trainer. “It was kind of the first time we’ve been able to get him two races like this that we think he wants. He’s always trained like a really good horse. Now he gets his chance to prove it.”

Rally Cry’s 2017 started with a second going a mile at Gulfstream Park off a nine-month layoff. Next, he won going 1 1/16 miles at Belmont April 30 and ran so well that Pletcher tried the 1-mile Metropolitan Handicap next time. Sixth and beaten 15 1/2 lengths there, Rally Cry went 1 1/8 miles for the first time in the Alydar and thrived. The reward is Gun Runner.

“Both horses are doing really well,” Pletcher said. “If Gun Runner outruns our two, then it is what it is.”

Fourth in the Whitney, War Story takes another swing at Gun Runner. The 5-year-old Northern Afleet gelding won the 1 1/2-mile Brooklyn two starts back, but could not make any headway in the stretch of the Whitney.

Sent off at almost 59-1 in the Whitney, Discreet Lover beat two to collect $45,000. He makes his 30th lifetime start while trying to add to his $381,310 bankroll today.

 

Perfect Weapon
Gun Runner adds another Grade 1 victory to fast-growing resume

By Sean Clancy

Steve Asmussen walked and waved. Then stopped.

“This is unbelievable,” Asmussen said. “So Saratoga.”

Rows and rows of fans in section A in the reserved clubhouse seats stood and cheered for Asmussen, moments after Gun Runner and jockey Florent Geroux rolled past in complete control of the 64th Woodward Stakes. Old men in sport coats called Asmussen’s name. Young women in jeans clapped. A man in a Joshua Tree T-shirt yelled for Asmussen like he was his kid brother. A teenager bellowed, “Gun Runnnnnnnnner,” over and over.

It was a cacophony of whistling, clapping, yelling and saluting.

Asmussen looked across the seats again. “So Saratoga,” he said, awed by the crowd.

But it was Gun Runner who had awed the crowd.

Owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm, the 4-year-old son of Candy Ride toyed with four rivals, drawing off to win his third consecutive Grade 1 stakes by 10 1/4 lengths over Todd Pletcher’s pair of Rally Cry and Neolithic. Gun Runner finished 1 1/8 miles in 1:47.43.

“He’s awesome, isn’t he?” Asmussen said as he entered the winner’s circle, a month after Gun Runner did the same thing in the Grade 1 Whitney.

Sent off as the 1-5 favorite, Gun Runner broke well from stall two as Geroux urged him lightly to make sure he kept his position between Neolithic on his left and Rally Cry on his right. Jose Ortiz asked Neolithic to take control and the third choice rolled into the first turn with a length advantage over Gun Runner. With his foot firmly in the door, Geroux dialed it back a notch and sat still as a pillar, allowing Gun Runner’s natural speed to keep the perfect spot. John Velazquez kept Rally Cry on Gun Runner’s quarter as War Story drifted back to fourth and longshot Discreet Lover lagged last.

Neolithic posted the first quarter-mile in :23.20 and the half in :46.56 as Gun Runner settled 2 lengths off the pacesetter. Velazquez tried to keep in touch with Rally Cry but he had slid 2 lengths off Gun Runner as the field left the backstretch. After three-quarters of a mile in 1:10.45, Gun Runner rolled to and past Neolithic while the others tried to go up the down escalator.

Past the quarter pole, Geroux let smoke off the flame and Gun Runner rolled into the stretch in complete control. Geroux looked to his left at the big screen in the infield, the lead was 3 and widening. Past the eighth pole, he pulled his whip from his right hand to his left and teed it up just in case.

There was no case.

Waiting for next big screen to come into view, Geroux looked again, the lead was widening without effort…6…7…8…He waved his whip and then turned it down as Gun Runner rolled to his most dominant win.

On the way back to the winner’s circle, Geroux pumped his left fist, gave Gun Runner a pat on the neck, waved like he was riding on a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and pointed at Gun Runner for appreciation from the crowd. In the winner’s circle, Asmussen kissed his big horse right between his eyes.

“He is a tremendous talent, a tremendous talent, a tremendous talent,” Asmussen said. “I’m just proud of him, proud of the whole team, getting it done. When you’re in the middle of it, you feel the responsibility. He has won three Grade 1s after coming back from Dubai in pretty emphatic fashion. It’s there in black and white, it’s true. It’s rare that they do it that often.”

Gun Runner has entered rarified company in 2017. After winning four races, including the Grade 1 Clark Handicap last year, Gun Runner began this season with an easy score in the Grade 3 Razorback at Oaklawn Park. An otherworldly effort from Arrogate relegated Gun Runner to second in the Dubai World Cup in March. Freshened, he won the Grade 1 Stephen Foster by 7 lengths, the Whitney by 5 1/4 and the Woodward by 10 1/4. If you’re keeping score, that’s three Grade 1 stakes by a combined 22 1/2 lengths. A natural frontrunner, Gun Runner proved yet again that he’s versatile enough to stalk the pace if there’s pace.

“He’s the perfect weapon,” Ron Winchell said.

For Winchell, the Woodward was nerve-wracking as the final big piece of the puzzle that leads to the Breeders’ Cup in November.

 “I was a little bit more nervous today because it’s a prep race for the Breeders’ Cup and there have been some really good horses, Songbird and Arrogate, who have gotten beat and today seemed less formful than other days, so you come into it getting a little worried,” Winchell said. “Consistency is not the norm in horse racing, for him, to be as consistent as he is and pull off as many wins as he has, it’s just great.”

Asmussen credits Winchell for part of Gun Runner’s consistency. The owner was amenable to a conservative plan last year, opting for the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile instead of the Classic. Gun Runner finished second in the Dirt Mile, then came back to win his first Grade 1, the Clark Handicap, three weeks later.

“It doesn’t always work, more times not, but when you look at his management we’ve tried to put him in the right spots where he can win and get him right for the next race and let him tell us when he’s going to run,” Winchell said. “Just like last year when he ran in the Breeders’ Cup, we were not going to run in the Clark but then he was breaking the barn down wanting to run so it was like, ‘Let’s go.’ ”

With Songbird retired, Arrogate skidding in two starts at Del Mar and the 3-year-old division as chaotic as Caroline Street on a Saturday night, Gun Runner has become the most consistent, most dynamic horse in training. For his career, he’s now 10-for-17 with $5,738,500 million in earnings.

After a glass of champagne, Asmussen had already begun to navigate how to get to Del Mar in November.

“He’ll train up to the Breeders’ Cup,” Asmussen said. “I’m thinking about going to Churchill with him for about three weeks, I was going to stay here and then go to California, but it’s getting too damn cold here, I don’t want to grow a winter coat and it’s 100 (degrees) out there and I don’t want any of that. We’ll make sure we’re 100 percent here, then decide, but it was impossible not to notice this week, he’s had a night sheet on the last two nights.”

With Curlin and Rachel Alexandra as past Woodward winners, Asmussen appreciates the company that Gun Runner has joined.

“Having him nine and 10 years after them, there’s no comparison. They’re so special and unique that you would never disrespect them by comparing them,” Asmussen said. “It’s just so special, when one comes around who’s just that much better than the majority of everything you’re around. You temper your enthusiasm as much as you can because of the multitudes, the billions of things that can happen with a racehorse.”

As Asmussen walked toward the Union Avenue gate in the dying light of a Saturday at Saratoga, fans stopped the Hall of Famer for autographs, selfies and basic implorations for the fall.

“Best horse in the country,” a fan yelled. “See you at the Breeders’ Cup.”

Asmussen waved.

“Hoping,” he said. “Hoping.”

 

Western Expression
Baffert, Wests, Smith stake claim in Grade 1 Travers

By Sean Clancy

“When you’re young it’s special because it’s the first one. When you’re old, it’s special because it might be the last one.”

That’s how Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith described his four Travers wins, spanning 23 years from Holy Bull to Coronado’s Quest to Arrogate to West Coast. The latest one, we didn’t say the last one, came Saturday when Smith changed plans in the post parade, gunned West Coast to the lead and made it stand up for 10 furlongs, widening to a 3 1/2-length score over longshot Gunnevera and Blue Grass winner Irap.

“They’re all special, man, they’re all special,” Smith said, as he peeled off Gary and Mary West’s silks after West Coast wired 11 rivals in the 148th Travers Stakes. “Holy Bull was awesome, he was and still is one of the best, if not the best horse I’ve ever ridden. Coronado’s Quest, I helped a little in that one, maybe, just because I didn’t know if he could get the mile-and-a-quarter. Then coming back and setting the fastest time ever in the Travers, then coming back and doing this again. It’s a dream come true. A dream come true.”

Trained by Bob Baffert, West Coast traveled from the west coast to dominate the Grade 1 Travers, knocking off Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming, Preakness winner Cloud Computing, Belmont winner Tapwrit, Haskell winner Girvin, Jim Dandy winner Good Samaritan and six other members of the 3-year-old division which finally has a leader.

“The who’s who of racing was here,” Gary West said. “Nobody can say he caught an easy field, they can say a lot of things but they can’t say that.”

This year’s Travers had it all, the Derby, Preakness and Belmont winners clashing in the big one at Saratoga. That clash failed to materialize as Always Dreaming stalked West Coast but faded to ninth, Cloud Computing slipped from third to eighth and Tapwrit ran evenly to wind up fourth.

West Coast finished 1 1/4 miles in 2:01.19 to register his fourth straight win. In those wins, West Coast sat off the pace each time, stalking in third to win an allowance at Santa Anita Park in May, rating in sixth before crushing eight rivals in the Easy Goer at Belmont Park in June and settling in sixth before dominating the Los Alamitos Derby in July.

Smith called an audible, changing those tactics as West Coast galloped to the start for his Grade 1 debut.

“Warming up, I knew. He warmed up good, like real good, like fire good. The more I thought about things, I said, ‘I better put him on the lead,’ especially warming up, the way he warmed up so sharp,” Smith said. “I thought if they don’t go fast, he might be pulling behind them and I might be swinging on him. It’s the kind of race where if I could catch a flyer I’m going to the lead and it worked.”

Breaking from stall 3, West Coast jumped sharply as Smith squeezed, draping low and long, wagging his whip from his right hand and changing his hold with each stride. It only took 15 strides, Smith rose and froze and West Coast’s momentum established a clear lead. The noose was tied.

 “I’m so blessed to ride horses that have the kind of talent to be able to do that,” Smith said. “I jigged him, slapped him, showed him that stick up in his face for just about a jump, just to see what he would do and he went. I said, ‘oooh.’ ”

So did 11 other jockeys, Smith’s ecstasy creating their dismay.

West Coast led Always Dreaming through a quarter-mile in :23.82. Irap fanned wide before sliding into third while Cloud Computing found a comfortable spot in fourth. Tapwrit established a forward spot in fifth. Giuseppe The Great sat in sixth, Fayeq crossed from the outside post to find a position in seventh. Lookin At Lee, Girvin, McCraken and Gunnevera lagged while Good Samaritan plummeted to his customary spot in last.

West Coast doled out the first half-mile in :48.12, unpressured by Always Dreaming and Irap. Jose Ortiz made the first move, sliding Tapwrit inside Cloud Computing and Irap and into third, on the heels of West Coast and Always Dreaming. Those five opened 4 lengths on the cluster of Girvin, Giuseppe The Great, McCraken, Lookin At Lee, an advancing Gunnevera and a retreating Fayeq. Good Samaritan loped by himself.

Into the turn, Smith allowed West Coast to lengthen as Irap pressured from the outside and Gunnevera ripped audaciously around the outside. Always Dreaming slipped backward fast, Cloud Computing echoed that, Tapwrit paddled without making up ground, Good Samaritan chipped at an unmovable rock and the rest were simply filling gaps.

After 6 furlongs in 1:12.23, West Coast wheeled into the stretch, Smith rocking but far from rolling as Gunnevera and Irap made it three in a line – briefly.

“They came to me on my outside, I was like, ‘Ok, is he going to kick in?’ ” Smith said. “Man, he jumped, when I asked him, he jumped. I said, ‘We’re OK.’ ”

 Straightening, Smith switched his whip from his right hand to his left and with one smack, West Coast accelerated, separating from Irap and Gunnevera who were the only two left in the ring. Past the eighth pole, West Coast stayed at the job, inching away from Gunnevera who had inched away from Irap. In the final sixteenth, West Coast widened to score by 3 1/4 lengths over a game Gunnevera.

With Baffert at home on his “Grade 1 couch,” assistant Jimmy Barnes, his wife, Dana, and groom Salvador Rangel led the West Coast team, watching the Travers from the clubhouse first floor.

“It’s just the three of us, huh?” Rangel said before the race.

It’s all they needed, switching their implorations from “Come on buddy, come on Mike,” (Dana) to “Go on man,” (Jimmy) to “You got it man, you got it man,” (Rangel).

Racing once a month since making his debut in February, West Coast had made the ultimate transition, systematically turning into a Grade 1 winner.

“That was awesome, wasn’t it? Just getting good,” Jimmy Barnes said. “You never know until you actually go a mile-and-a-quarter and coming here you never know until you run on this track. He was just late developing, we knew he was getting better and better each week.”

Dana Barnes could feel that.

“We loved him from Day 1, Bob every time he saw him gallop, he was like, ‘Who’s that? Who’s that?’ Just the way he moves, he always acted like a good horse,” Dana said. “Ever since American Pharoah, the Travers has been Bob’s goal. He’s been able to build up his confidence, it’s the same thing he did with Arrogate last year, just let him win some easier races, build that confidence, get him fitter, he’s just coming around at the right time.”

For Gary and Mary West, it was exactly the right time, making up for American Freedom’s second in the Travers last year and topping the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile won by New Year’s Day in 2013. On the Wests’ stats page, West Coast jumped past the likes of Book Review, Power Broker, Family Tree, American Freedom and the rest of their horses who have compiled 429 wins since 2005.

“It’s almost indescribable, there are a few races on our bucket list, on everybody’s bucket list, if the Travers isn’t on your list, you’re not following racing,” Gary West said. “We won a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, that was a big thrill, but this was even better. This is definitely the biggest, especially considering the quality of horses we beat today.”

West never dreamed of this while growing up in the small town of Harlan, Iowa, falling for horse racing while gambling at Ak-sar-ben, watching his first Travers on a black and white TV, claiming Joe Blow, his first horse at Ak-sar-ben in 1980.

 “It started out as a gambling thing then I fell in love with the sport of horse racing,” West said. “It’s become more about the sport than the gambling, winning races like this, it keeps you young.”

Nobody felt younger on Travers Day than the 71-year-old West. Walking toward the Nelson Avenue gate, West stopped twice. First for a picture. Second for a painting.

Saratoga locals Mary Rose Behan, Wayne Potter and Carol Flanagan Potter, dressed to their Travers best, stopped Gary West and asked for a photo.

 “Thank you for letting us share your moment,” Behan said. “It was such a great ride.”

“They don’t happen often, so we’ll enjoy them,” West said.

West walked a few more feet and stopped at a circle of flowers like he was taking communion.

Artist Robin Schumacher, who’s been painting Grade 1 jockeys in Saratoga for 10 years, touched up a black diamond on the Wests’ pink and black silks on the newest Travers-winning iron jockey.

“How you doing, my dear?” West asked.

“It’s a little wet, it’s dripping a little bit,” Schumacher said. “It’s close.”

For West, it was already there.