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.”
“Hoping,” he said. “Hoping.”