Gun Song answers questions in Black-Eyed Susan victory

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Gun Song and John Velazquez sprint to the finish of Friday’s Grade 2 Black-Eyed Susan at Pimlico. Maryland Jockey Club Photo.

Mark Hennig took a spot among the owners’ box seats above the winner’s circle at Pimlico Race Course, watched the early and middle stages of the 100th renewal of the Grade 2 George E. Mitchell Black-Eyed Susan Stakes and loved what he saw.

“I haven’t seen a replay yet, but I was happy to see the way the pace unfolded,” the trainer said. “…I don’t know, but I was anticipating more pressure from the outside. When we didn’t get it – when I saw the three-quarters in 1:13 – I thought, that’s two seconds faster than they just stopped going a sixteenth of a mile (longer).”

John Velazquez, aboard the Hennig-trained Gun Song, didn’t exactly share the sentiments in the early stages of the $300,000 Black-Eyed Susan aboard the 2-1 favorite.

“I was a little concerned taking too much hold,” Velazquez said. “I didn’t want to do that. But they were going so slow. She got relaxed on the backstretch and we were going so slow, so that I was thinking that, hopefully, when I let her go I didn’t choke her down.”

By the time the 9 furlongs of the Black-Eyed Susan were complete neither Hennig nor Velazquez, nor any of the other members of the Gun Runner filly’s team, needed to fret too much. Gun Song took care of her seven opponents in the featured event on the Preakness Eve card at Pimlico, looking like a winner from the half-mile pole to the wire en route to a 3 1/4-length victory. Gun Song, a $400,000 buy at last year’s OBS March sale of 2-year-olds in training by Lee Lewis on the advice of Hennig and bloodstock agent Phil Hager, improved to 3-for-6 with her first stakes victory.

Gun Song, bet down to 2-1 favoritism after being pegged as the 9-2 fourth choice in the morning line, finished fourth last time out in the 1 1/16-mile Gulfstream Park Oaks. She faded in the stretch that day under Velazquez, part of the reason for Hennig’s trepidation. Hennig also watched odds-on favorite Kingsbarns fail to hold off the late run of Pyrenees in the stretch after a 6-furlong split of 1:15.57 a race before in the Grade 3 Pimlico Special.

Hennig figured Velazquez’s fellow riders “checked their game plan” and took back in the Black-Eyed Susan, allowing Gun Song to track the front-running Jeanne Marie without any pressure to her outside. Jeanne Marie led through splits of :24.20, :49.47 and 1:13.66 before Gun Song took over at the top of the stretch.

“Once I put my hands down at the three-eighths pole, she was relaxed and when I asked her at the quarter pole, she responded nice to me,” Velazquez said. “She just got tired last time out (at Gulfstream). And then I worked her last week, and I knew she was ready. I knew this time she was quite ready for it.

“She’s a horse that kind of waits, and I wanted to make sure to keep her mind running. She actually opened up. I didn’t know she was going to open up that much, but she did it nicely. I thought it was going to be a much faster pace, but it didn’t show up.”

Gun Song shook clear in the stretch, opened 3 lengths in midstretch and cruised to the finish well clear in 1:51.39. Corposo, third last time in the Grade 2 Santa Anita Oaks, finished second, a neck in front of the Maryland-bred Call Another Play.

Gun Song, the latest major stakes winner for her newly elected Hall of Fame sire, also brought back fond memories for Hennig and owner Lee Lewis.

Friends for four decades, dating to Hennig’s time as an assistant to D. Wayne Lukas, the two landed on racing’s biggest stage in 1993 with Personal Hope. Winner of the Santa Anita Derby carrying Lewis’ teal and blue colors, Personal Hope turned for home in front in the Kentucky Derby before fading the fourth.

“He turned for home 2 in front. I have a picture at the quarter pole and he’s sitting like this (takes motion like taking a big hold), Gary Stevens,” Hennig said. “Sea Hero ran by him at the eighth pole and … we ended up fourth that day. Lee and I, after the race, we were watching Paul Mellon and Mack Miller get the trophy, I said, ‘well, those guys are old. They were 80-something years old. We’ve got all this time.’

“Lee said something about that today and I was like, ‘who knew? … but we’re not in our 80s.’ ”

Black-Eyed Susan Day Notes: Blue Heaven Farm’s homebred Pyrenees capped a big day for trainer Cherie DeVaux in the $250,000 Pimlico Special, extending his win streak to four with a grinding three-quarter-length win over Kingsbarns. Brian Hernandez Jr., who rides Kentucky Derby winner Mystik Dan in Saturday’s Preakness, rode the 5-1 third choice. DeVaux won two other stakes on the card – Shotgun Hottie in the $100,000 Allaire du Pont Distaff for older fillies and mares and She Feels Pretty in the $100,000 Hilltop for 3-year-old fillies on the grass. “It’s great; this is my first time really here on my own,” DeVaux said. “I only came here one time before with Chad (when she worked as an assistant to Chad Brown). So, I think I’ll have to make this a yearly visit. I’ve never won three races in a day, so we’ll take this.” … Future Is Now led a 1-3 finish for owner-breeder Larry Johnson and trainer Mike Trombetta in the $100,000 The Very One Stakes. The 4-year-old daughter of Great Notion shook off her rivals in the stretch to win by 2 1/4 lengths over Shoshannah with stablemate Hollywood Walk a neck back at 28-1. Paco Lopez rode Future Is Now in the 5-furlong turf stakes. … Florida-bred Mystic Lake won the day’s other graded stakes, setting the pace early and cruising to a 4 1/2-length tally under Flavien Prat in the Grade 3, $150,000 Miss Preakness. Owned by C2 Racing Stable and Stefania Farms and trained by Saffie Joseph Jr., the 3-year-old daughter of Mo Town won in 1:11.40.