Gun Runner delivers in big moment

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Be proud of Gun Runner. You don’t have to own him, train him or even know him, but be proud of him. The chestnut 4-year-old isn’t the biggest horse in the world or the strongest or even the most handsome.

But he’s the best.

He delivered in racing’s biggest arena – the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic – Saturday at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club in Del Mar, Cal. Gun Runner seized control early from post five in a field of 11, turned aside the relentless pressure of Collected through an opening quarter-mile in :22.50, a half in :46.31 and 6 furlongs in 1:10.50. Still in front, and hounded, turning for home, Gun Runner summoned more and kicked away – finally shedding Collected while drawing off to win by 2 1/4 lengths with West Coast taking third. Defending race winner Arrogate never threatened and finished fifth in his final race.

Trained by Steve Asmussen for Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm, Gun Runner covered 1 1/4 miles in 2:01.29. The son of Candy Ride seized the Horse of the Year crown with his fifth win in six starts this year. The lone defeat was a second, to Arrogate, in the Dubai World Cup. Gun Runner finished 2017 with $6,950,700 in earnings and pushed his lifetime number to $8,988,500.

This summer, Asmussen assistant Scott Blasi called Gun Runner a horse you could “set your watch to” and the statement held all year. The colt started 2017 with a win in Oaklawn Park’s Razorback, finished second in Dubai, then won four consecutive Grade 1 stakes – the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs, the Whitney and Woodward at Saratoga and finally Saturday’s Classic.

In the Del Mar paddock beforehand, Gun Runner stood in his stall, a sliver of setting sun from the nearby Pacific horizon on his face, and waited while others made circles on the walking path. It only felt like it given the long break between races, but he’d have stood there all day. Once on the track, Gun Runner was Gun Runner – all calm and control.

“He knows who he is, and he accepts it, and he feels up to it all the time,” said Asmussen in the post-race press conference. “The confidence that he gives you is unbelievable. As you saw him in the paddock, if you’re around the next couple of days, it will amaze you at how playful he is and nippy and just he knows what his job is. When it comes up, he’s dialed in, and I think that’s a testament to who he is and the handlers of him allowing him to be him.”

Walking out of Del Mar in the looming evening light, Asmussen met a few fans. They got an autograph and a photo, and offered a final congratulations on the win.

“I’m just the lucky trainer of the best horse in the world,” Asmussen said.

Gun Runner set faster opening fractions than Sharp Azteca in Friday’s Dirt Mile, got pressured from the outside by one of trainer Bob Baffert’s four entrants and never wavered. On a loose rein from Florent Geroux, Gun Runner kept his head low and his legs moving, and thwarted all potential challenges.

“My horse was very comfortable right there, and flopping his ears back and forth, it shows a sign that he was relaxing nicely for me while going quick,” the jockey said. “But he’s just a fast horse. From there I just tried to keep him as happy as I could. From there, at the quarter pole it was just a two-horse race between me and Collected, and from there, we just went on, and the best horse won the race.”

After six weeks in California, Gun Runner will head to Three Chimneys in Kentucky Monday for a break – and some visits by breeders’ for the top stallion prospect – as the connections ponder one more start in the 2018 Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park in January. Gun Runner missed that $12 million opportunity this year because his winter base at Fair Grounds racetrack in New Orleans was under a shipping quarantine. It was the only miss of Gun Runner’s year, and he had nothing to do with it.

“The way that he has taken his races, the way that he’s coming out of them, me and Scott were just marveling at him this week how strong he looks schooling this week,” Asmussen said. “That’s a lot of travel this year, lot of fast races, and I think he’s better today than he’s ever been.”

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The Breeders’ Cup winner’s circle ceremonies, especially the Classic, take a lot of orchestration. Each race involves a presentation, massive crowds, a horse, a 25-pound trophy, a television interviews, a blanket of flowers, a cooler that goes on the horse as he or she exits.

And emotions.

After the Classic ceremonies, Gun Runner headed toward the test barn as Asmussen adjusted the cooler and gave some instructions to Blasi. The trainer turned to go back to the hoopla in the winner’s circle, then wheeled around again and called to Blasi – by now 20 yards away.

“Hey,” Asmussen said, adding a wave of his arm.

Blasi returned and leaned in – probably expecting to hear something about water or a bath, maybe keeping the tired horse moving. Instead, he got a hug – a big, deep, long, proud bear hug right there on the track.