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 past 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.”