After a promising juvenile season Gun Runner was on the shortlist of many Kentucky Derby winter book handicappers. With his victories in the February 20 Risen Star Stakes (G2) and the March 26 Louisiana Derby (G2) the Steve Asmussen-trainee heads to Churchill Downs with very strong credentials.
The colt made his belated 2016 debut in the Risen Star and had to overcome some adversity to get his picture taken. He broke a half-beat slow from post five under Florent Geroux, who then put the hustle on to preserve position going into the first turn. The pair nevertheless found themselves in a five-horse school behind early leader Candy My Boy and pace-presser Bistraya. After bumping with favored Airoforce late in the first turn, Geroux again hit the accelerator when an opening appeared and ranged up to third. He then used some more of Gun Runner's speed to secure the inside from Bistraya before tipping out to pounce on Candy My Boy around the far turn. At the eighth pole he went on by a stubborn Candy My Boy and appeared home free before getting late and allowing 40-1 Forevemo and the tough-luck Mo Tom to add some drama to the finish. The final margin of victory was a half-length.
Risen Star Stakes video:
His victory in the Louisiana Derby was far more facile. Again ridden by Florent Geroux, the colt got a smooth stalking trip along the inside after breaking from the rail. When Geroux saw pacemaker Candy My Boy begin to tire around the far turn he pushed Gun Runner through a seam to the outside of that runner (and inside Uncle Walter). The pair gained command at the top of the long Fair Ground stretch and powered home from there for the 4 1/2-length victory.
Gun Runner is bred to be a good one and he's been handled by his connections like a colt with big Classics potential all along. He didn't debut until mid-September, a win going a mile at Churchill Downs over the odds-on Gametown (a $675,000 juvenile purchase). In his second start he handled two-turns with a 2-length Allowance victory at 1 1/6 miles before running 4th in the KY Jockey Club behind Airoforce, Mor Spirit and Mo Tom on a sloppy/sealed surface. He's now won all four of his start on dry main tracks.
By the unbeaten Candy Ride out the Giant's Causeway mare Quiet Giant, Gun Runner was co-bred by the prolific owner/breeders Winchell Thoroughbreds, who race the colt in partnership with Three Chimneys Farm. Over the years the Winchell family has bred the likes of Wood Memorial (G1) winner (and sire sensation) Tapit, Eclipse Champion Untapable, Hollywood Futurity (G1) winner Valiant Nature and Arkansas Derby (G1) winner Olympio (among many others). Quiet Giant counts the Grade 2 Molly Pitcher Stakes among her five blacktype victories and she sold for $3 million at the 2011 Keeneland November sale.
A Classic victory by Gun Runner would be yet another for the Fappiano sire-line that's given us Triple Crown race winners like Unbridled, Grindstone, Real Quiet, Mine That Bird, Empire Maker, Birdstone, Red Bullet and, of course, American Pharoah. Gun Runner's sire, Candy Ride, is by the South American sire Ride the Rails, a son of Fappiano's first Classic runner, Cryptoclearance, who placed in the 1987 Preakness and Belmont Stakes. In fact, Gun Runner is inbred to Fappiano at 4x4.
Gun Runner will seek to become the first Louisiana Derby winner to wear the roses on the first Saturday in May since Grindstone 20 years ago. Grindstone actually made a pitstop in the Arkansas Derby (finishing second) on his way to Louisville.
In the 'old days' Gun Runner might have been disregarded by many Kentucky Derby handicappers for being too lightly raced - just two spring preps and only five career starts. But in 2008 Big Brown won the Derby in his fourth career outing with just an Allowance and Florida Derby victory under his girth that year. Since then five other Derby winners have scored off of a two-race spring regimen - American Pharoah, I'll Have Another (2012), Animal Kingdom (2011), Super Saver (2010) and Mine That Bird (2009).
There is certainly enough quality in Gun Runner's race record (on a fast track), pedigree and human connections for handicappers be extremely bullish on his chances of securing a Classic victory this year.