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The Top 10 Performances of 2017

by Jon White

January 4, 2018

Now that calendars have been flipped over to 2018, it’s time for this column’s 14th annual ranking of the Top 10 performances by a Thoroughbred in the United States during 2017.

A Thoroughbred’s performance can make my list for a variety of reasons, such as:

--A win by a big margin while showing brilliance.
--Recording a fast final time and/or speed figure.
--Being especially game in victory or defeat.
--Overcoming adversity.
--Defeating a particularly strong group of opponents.
--Carrying more weight than usual and/or spotting considerable weight.
--Achieving something historic.

The importance of the race itself also plays a role in determining whether or not I believe a performance deserves to make the list.

Again, to make this list, it has to be a race run in the United States (hint: not Dubai).

And now, drumroll please, here is my list of the Top 10 performances by a Thoroughbred in the U.S. during 2017:

10. GUN RUNNER | Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap | Churchill Downs | 1 1/8 Miles Dirt | June 17, 2017 | Video

Owner: Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm
Trainer: Steve Asmussen
Jockey: Florent Geroux

After Gun Runner finished second in the Group I Dubai World Cup on March 25 when overtaken by superstar Arrogate in the stretch, the 4-year-old Kentucky-bred Candy Ride colt cruised to a seven-length victory as a 1-2 favorite when making his next start in the June 17 Stephen Foster.

Gun Runner’s task in the Foster became easier when he seized the advantage at once and nobody took him on early. Even though his rivals essentially handed him the race by permitting him to have it his own way while setting the pace, this still was a praiseworthy performance.

“I was loaded the entire trip around there,” Geroux said. “He was doing everything so easily. This horse is truly unbelievable. He’s one of the best horses I’ve ever ridden. To put forward this type of effort after running in Dubai is so impressive. I was a bit surprised to find myself on a lone lead, but I wasn’t complaining. What a horse.”

“We always thought he would get better with age,” said Asmussen, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016. “He’s proving that to us right now. This horse is incredibly special in so many ways.”

Gun Runner continued to show just how special he was by winning his remaining three starts in 2017, with all three of those victories also making my list of the top performances of the year.

9. DISCO PARTNER | Grade III Jaipur Stakes | Belmont Park | 6 Furlongs Turf | June 10, 2017 | Video

Owner: Patricia Generazio
Trainer: Christophe Clement
Jockey: Irad Ortiz Jr.

Eighth early, Disco Partner rocketed home to win by a half-length at 9-2. What made this performance special was the final time posted by the 5-year-old New York-bred son of Disco Rico.

“And look at that time – 1:05.67! Holy mackerel!” track announcer Larry Collmus exclaimed immediately after the race was over.

“No. 2 Disco Partner was first, No. 4 Green Mask was second, No. 5 Holding Gold was third, No. 3 Pure Sensation was fourth,” Collmus went on to say. “The final time is a new course record -- the fastest six furlongs I think I’ve ever seen, 1:05.67.”

Indeed, Disco Partner’s 1:05.67 clocking “established a course, North American, and world record time,” according to the official Equibase chart.

8. ELATE | Grade I Beldame Stakes | Belmont Park | 1 1/8 Miles Dirt | September 30, 2017 | Video

Owner: Claiborne Farm & Adele Dilschneider
Trainer: Bill Mott
Jockey: Jose Ortiz

Elate, a 3-year-old, won the Grade I Beldame at Belmont by a wide margin despite not having the best of trips while facing her elders for the first time. She was boxed in when full of run turning into the stretch and early in the stretch run. When a narrow seam materialized in the stretch a little more than three-sixteenths out, she came through between rivals like a running back bursting between linesmen in a football game. Elate then poured it on to win by 8 1/4 lengths.

7. WEST COAST | Grade I Travers Stakes | Saratoga | 1 1/4 Miles Dirt | August 26, 2017 | Video

Owner: Gary & Mary West
Trainer: Bob Baffert
Jockey: Mike Smith

West Coast seized the lead at once and led past every pole in this historic 1 1/4-mile event. The Kentucky-bred Flatter colt led by one length with a furlong to go, then steadily increased his advantage to prevail by 3 1/4 lengths in a very good 2:01.19 while recording a 108 Beyer Speed Figure.

I think an impressive aspect regarding West Coast’s Travers performance was his remarkably steady tempo. He kept clicking off quarter after quarter in :24 and change or faster. He ran the opening quarter-mile in :23 4/5, followed by quarters in :24 1/5, :24 flat, 24 2/5 and :24 1/5.

Such metronome-like steadiness during a race brings to mind American Pharoah’s victory in the 2015 Belmont Stakes in which the Baffert-trained superstar became the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. In the 1 1/2-mile Belmont, American Pharoah ran the opening quarter-mile in :24, followed by quarters in :24 3/5, :24 2/5, :24 2/5, :24 1/5, :24 1/5.

When the Baffert-trained champion Arrogate won the 2016 Travers in front-running fashion and demolished Saratoga’s 1 1/4-mile track record with a final clocking of 1:59.36, his fractional times were :23 1/5, :23 3/5, :24 flat, :24 3/5 and :23 4/5. His :23 4/5 final quarter in particular was extraordinary considering how fast he had gone early in the race.

Arrogate’s Travers victory truly was Secretariat-like. In what generally is considered the greatest performance by a Thoroughbred in the history of American racing, Secretariat won the 1973 Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths to complete a Triple Crown sweep. Secretariat’s fractional times in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont were :23 3/5, :22 3/5, :23 3/5, :24 2/5, :24 4/5 and :25 flat.

6. MOR SPIRIT | Grade I Metropolitan Handicap | Belmont Park | 1 Mile Dirt | June 10, 2017 | Video

Owner: Michael Petersen
Trainer: Bob Baffert
Jockey: Mike Smith

Mor Spirit “contended for command just about from the get-go,” as stated in the official Equibase chart. The 4-year-old Pennsylvania-bred son of Eskendereya vied for the early advantage with Sharp Azteca, then put that rival way after six furlongs. Mor Spirit drew out in the stretch to win by 6 1/4 lengths in a sparkling 1:33.71 as the 5-2 favorite.

Not only did Mor Spirit win with authority in splendid time, he crushed a strong group of rivals. Sharp Azteca held on well enough to finish second, followed in order by Tommy Macho, Awesome Slew, Economic Model, Rally Cry, Tom’s Ready, Solid Wager, Virtual Machine, Denman’s Call, Mohaymen and Inside Straight.

Mor Spirit recorded a career-best 117 Beyer Speed Figure for his Met Mile triumph.

5. GUN RUNNER | Grade I Whitney Stakes | Saratoga | 1 1/8 Miles Dirt | August 5, 2017 | Video

Owner: Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm
Trainer: Steve Asmussen
Jockey: Florent Geroux

This will always be remembered as the race that was won by a horse with five shoes.

Second in the early going, Gun Runner readily took over approaching the far turn in the 1 1/8-mile event. Shaking clear on the far turn without being hard ridden to do so, he steadily increased his lead in the stretch while on his way to a 5 1/4-length win in a splendid 1:47.71. It was the fastest final time in the Whitney since Lawyer Ron’s 1:46.64 clocking 10 years earlier.

Keen Ice is best known for upsetting Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers at Saratoga. In the 2017 Whitney, Keen Ice finished a non-threatening second to Gun Runner.

Of the thousands and thousands of horse races that I have watched over the years, I had never seen a horse finish a race with a horseshoe in his or her tail…until, amazingly, it happened with Gun Runner in the Whitney.

Following the race, while Gun Runner was on his way to the winner’s circle, people noticed a horseshoe embedded in his tail. Videotape of the race showed that on the backstretch, in the vicinity of the five-sixteenths pole, pacesetter Cautious Giant lost a shoe, with it flying high into the air. It came down and bounced off Cautious Giant’s hind end, then ricocheted into Gun Runner’s tail. The shoe remained in Gun Runner’s tail throughout the remainder of the race.

The morning after the Whitney, NYRA TV’s Maggie Wolfendale asked Asmussen if he had ever had a horse finish a race with five shoes.

“No,” Asmussen replied. “I received multiple congratulations and texts, but twice as many ‘did you see thats?’ To have that happen in any race is so improbable, let alone with Gun Runner in the Whitney at Saratoga. I don’t think I’ll ever see it again. And I would choose not to. It’s just very lucky it didn’t hit him in the head. And watching the tape, his pretty long tail kept it out away from him. It never did come into contact with him until he came to a full stop, which was very fortunate.”

According to Asmussen, after the winner’s circle ceremony, the help gave the shoe to his assistant, Scott Blasi. Knowing it was not Gun Runner’s shoe and not realizing the shoe’s significance, Blasi tossed it aside.

Asmussen said with a chuckle that after Blasi “received several ‘did you see thats?’ himself, he had to purchase the shoe back.”

According to the Saratoga Race Course notes, Blasi paid “$100 to a lucky fan” who had picked up the shoe.

Gun Runner was assigned a 112 Beyer Speed Figure for his Whitney triumph.

4. PARADISE WOODS | Grade I Santa Anita Oaks | Santa Anita | 1 1/16 Miles Dirt | April 8, 2017 | Video

Owner: Steven Sarkowsky & Pam and Marty Wygod
Trainer: Richard Mandella
Jockey: Flavien Prat

Paradise Woods bowled along smoothly when setting the early pace while clicking off fractions of :23.46, :47.35 and 1:11.48. At the five-sixteenths pole midway on the far turn, she led by 1 1/2 lengths. They would not be able to get anywhere close to her after that. Paradise Woods’ advantage ballooned to 10 lengths at the eighth pole. That means Paradise Woods’ lead increased by 8 1/2 lengths in just the matter of three-sixteenths of a mile.

Paradise Woods received some left-handed encouragement during the stretch run, with Prat then taking his foot completely off the gas pedal toward the end. Completing her 1 1/16-mile journey in 1:42.53, Paradise Woods was all alone at the finish. She won by 11 1/4 lengths at 8-1 in the wagering.

“She looked like she was just cruising out there,” Mandella was quoted as saying after the race by Santa Anita publicity. “She took my breath away.”

Abel Tasman finished second as the 4-5 favorite. She would go on to win the Grade I Kentucky Oaks, Grade I Acorn Stakes and Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks.

Paradise Woods’ performance was all the more impressive because she was taking a giant class leap to the Grade I level off a maiden victory. Not only that, the Kentucky-bred Union Rags filly was stretching out to 1 1/16 miles off a 5 1/2-furlong race.

According to Santa Anita publicity, Paradise Woods’ margin of victory was the biggest in the history of the Santa Anita Oaks. Paradise Woods broke the record of 10 1/2 lengths set by Silver Spoon in 1959. Silver Spoon then beat the boys to win the Santa Anita Derby by 2 1/2 lengths before finishing fifth in Tomy Lee’s Kentucky Derby. Royal Orbit, who finished second to Silver Spoon in the Santa Anita Derby, won the Preakness Stakes that year. Silver Spoon was inducted into the national Hall of Fame in 1978.

In 1988, Winning Colors won the Santa Anita Oaks by eight lengths before running away to a 7 1/2-length triumph in the Santa Anita Derby. Winning Colors then joined Regret (1915) and Genuine Risk (1980) as the only fillies to ever win the Kentucky Derby. Winning Colors was inducted into the national Hall of Fame in 2000.

Beyer Speed Figures for the Santa Anita Oaks go back to 1990. Paradise Woods recorded a 107 Beyer, highest in the history of the race. The previous top Beyer recorded by a Santa Anita Oaks winner was 106 by Serena’s Song in 1995. Serena’s Song was inducted into the national Hall of Fame in 2002.

Paradise Woods’ 107 Beyer ranked as the highest by a 3-year-old filly in 2017.

3. GUN RUNNER | Grade I Woodward Stakes | Saratoga | 1 1/8 Miles Dirt | September 2, 2017 | Video

Owner: Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm
Trainer: Steve Asmussen
Jockey: Florent Geroux

Gun Runner stalked pacesetter Neolithic early, took command nearing the quarter pole and drew off in the stretch to win in isolated grandeur by 10 1/4 lengths as a 1-5 favorite. As it stated in the official Equibase chart, the outcome of the 2017 Woodward was “in no doubt.”

After the Woodward, Geroux marveled at the way Gun Runner kept improving as the year went on.

“This was better than the Whitney,” Geroux said. “Overall, he is just getting better.”

Gun Runner was assigned a 115 Beyer for his Woodward tour de force, a higher figure than he had ever previously recorded.

2. ARROGATE | Grade I Pegasus World Cup | Gulfstream Park | 1 1/8 Miles Dirt | January 28, 2017 | Video

Owner: Juddmonte Farms
Trainer: Bob Baffert
Jockey: Mike Smith

The $12 million purse for the inaugural Pegasus World Cup made it the richest race in the history of the sport. Charging to the front on the far turn, Arrogate went on to win by 4 3/4 lengths as the 4-5 favorite. California Chrome, the 2014 and 2016 Horse of the Year, ran ninth at 6-5 in the final start of his career.

This was not just a marvelous performance by Arrogate. It was also a great training job on the part of Hall of Famer Baffert, who had to get the 4-year-old Kentucky-bred Unbridled’s Song colt ready for this race during an extremely wet winter in Southern California.

Equibase originally listed Arrogate’s official final time as being 1:47.61. Many believed 1:47.61 was incorrect, that it actually was faster. Gulfstream through the years has had more timing problems than any other major track in the country.

Arrogate initially was assigned a 116 Beyer Speed Figure for his Pegasus performance. Three days after the race, Daily Racing Form’s Matt Hegarty reported that Andrew Beyer, the founder of Beyer Speed Figures, said the initial figure given to Arrogate “was changed from a 116 to a 119 after figure-makers, including Randy Moss, hand-timed the race at a time that was significantly faster than the official time of 1:47.61.”

Six days after the Pegasus World Cup, Equibase announced the final time for that race had been changed.

“A correction has been made to the official finish time for the 1 1/8-mile Pegasus World Cup (G1) run at Gulfstream Park on January 28, 2017,” an Equibase press release stated. “Upon subsequent detailed review of the race performance data, it has been determined that the winning horse ARROGATE (Unbridled’s Song) finished the race in 1:46.83. The finish time sets a Gulfstream Park track record for the 1 1/8-mile race run on the dirt surface (previous track record at this distance held by LEA at the 2014 Donn Hcp in 1:46.86).

“Gulfstream Park employs Trakus for its tracking and timing services…Trakus regrets the incorrect reporting of the finish time and apologizes for any inconvenience caused to our partner, Gulfstream Park, their fans and horsemen, and all industry stakeholders.”

Arrogate went on to win the Group I, $10 million Dubai World Cup on March 25 despite a wretched start in a performance for the ages. But his Dubai World Cup performance is not eligible for this list because it did not occur in the United States.

1. GUN RUNNER | Grade I Breeders' Cup Classic | Del Mar | 1 1/4 Miles Dirt | November 4, 2017 | Video

Owner: Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm
Trainer: Steve Asmussen
Jockey: Florent Geroux

Gun Runner put an exclamation point on his outstanding 2017 campaign when he registered a 2 1/4-length win in the BC Classic with the Horse of the Year title on the line. He was a perfect five for five on American soil in 2017. His lone defeat during the year occurred when he ran second to Arrogate in the Group I Dubai World Cup. But by virtue of Gun Runner’s win in the BC Classic, in which Arrogate was among the vanquished, Gun Runner was able to gain sweet revenge for his loss to Arrogate in Dubai.

Even though Arrogate lost his next two starts after his Dubai triumph, if he had won the BC Classic, there no doubt would have been considerable support for him as Horse of the Year. But Arrogate never threatened in the BC Classic and finished in a dead heat for fifth, while Gun Runner’s sparkling victory sewed up the 2017 Horse of the Year title.

Gun Runner was assigned a career-best 117 Beyer Speed Figure for his BC Classic win.

Not only does Gun Runner’s BC Classic rank No. 1 on this list because he won such an important event, his performance was especially impressive because, in addition to beating a strong group of opponents, he beat the track bias. Gun Runner won the BC Classic in front-running fashion while racing on the inside part of the track. Many observers believe that the inside was not the place to be that day on the Del Mar main track.

Asmussen alluded to Gun Runner overcoming a track bias in the post-race press conference.

“We all watched races all week,” Asmussen said. “And :22 2/5 [for the opening quarter] on the inside hasn’t had a lot of success. But I guess it wasn’t Gun Runner in that spot.”

And the No. 1 spot on my list of the top performances by a Thoroughbred in the U.S. during 2017 goes to Gun Runner in the BC Classic. This was the first time the BC Classic has produced my Top Performance of the Year since Blame’s victory in the 2010 renewal when he edged Zenyatta by a head for that great mare’s only loss in her wonderful 20-race career.

These have been my Top 10 Performances of the Year going back to 2004:

2004 Ghostzapper in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic
2005 Afleet Alex in the Grade I Preakness Stakes
2006 Barbaro in the Grade I Kentucky Derby
2007 Rags to Riches in the Grade I Belmont Stakes
2008 Big Brown in the Grade I Kentucky Derby
2009 Zenyatta in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic
2010 Blame in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic
2011 Animal Kingdom in the Grade I Kentucky Derby
2012 I’ll Have Another in the Grade I Preakness
2013 Dreaming of Julia in the Grade II Gulfstream Park Oaks
2014 Wise Dan in the Grade II Bernard Baruch Handicap
2015 American Pharoah in the Grade I Belmont Stakes
2016 Arrogate in the Grade I Travers Stakes
2017 Gun Runner in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic