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Fingerprints On This One

by Johnny D

August 10, 2017

As Gun Runner barreled through the Saratoga stretch Saturday in the Whitney Stakes, well clear of his closest pursuer Keen Ice, I couldn’t help but flashback four months earlier to the 2017 Dubai World Cup. In the desert that evening Arrogate ran one of the most incredible races I’ve ever seen. Away last after a rough start, he raced widest of all, gradually passing each and every foe until, in the stretch with about 500 yards to go, just one remained: Gun Runner. At the time I remember thinking, ‘there’s no way he’s got enough left to catch Gun Runner.’ I was incorrect. Arrogate didn’t just ‘catch’ Gun Runner, he inhaled him to win by over two lengths.

Is it disrespectful to watch one horse win a Grade 1 race while simultaneously daydreaming about another? I don’t think so. Compare and contrast. That’s what horseplayers do on a daily basis--evaluate who’s faster, fitter and most likely to get there first? Still, Saturday afternoon, as fans, connections, and media types appropriately gushed over Gun Runner’s performance, I felt less than euphoric.                          

Now that I mention it, I experienced a similar 2017 Dubai World Cup flashback earlier this summer during Gun Runner’s powerful and triumphant final sixteenth of a mile in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs. That night he won by seven lengths and I remember thinking, ‘If Gun Runner is this good, how great is Arrogate?’ The response was sobering. ‘Arrogate just might be the best horse I’ve ever seen. Maybe the greatest of all time.‘

Of course, that was months before Arrogate ‘phoned it in’ and finished off the board at Del Mar in the San Diego Handicap. Everyone’s entitled to an ‘off’ day and I’ll forgive the transgression provided he bounces back in the Pacific Classic. But damage is done. The Rembrandt’s smudged. The great ones must adhere to higher standards. We expect…no, demand...that they always show up. Or at least bring a note from a veterinarian.

Gun Runner performs like a Swiss watch. Especially lately. He’s won four of his last five starts—all graded stakes. The only loss came in Dubai to Arrogate. Gun Runner’s got speed and he keeps going. That’s a dangerous combination in a racehorse. He’s hickory, too. As a 3-year-old he waltzed all the dances—from Louisiana to Kentucky to New Jersey to New York to Pennsylvania to California—and seldom stubbed his hoof. He’s finished at least third in 14 of 16 lifetime races. He finished 2016 with a wire-to-wire win in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap at Churchill that was a preview of things to come. So far in 2017, a more mature 4-year-old version has been nearly perfect. In fact, through four races this year, at every call, the only horse’s ass Gun Runner has seen is Arrogate’s!

While Gun Runner presently is at the top of his game, the Whitney lineup wasn’t exactly Murderer’s Row. Other than Keen Ice, who went nearly two years between winner’s circle photos, there wasn’t much in the race. ‘Ice can claim two high-profile upsets: One in the 2015 Travers at Saratoga over Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and the other in the 2017 Suburban at Belmont in July over odds-on favorite Shaman Ghost. However, each of those was at a mile and one-quarter and the Whitney was at a mile and one-eighth. War Story entered Saturday’s race off a sharp Grade 2 Brooklyn score, but that was at a mile and one-half. Breaking Lucky was 3 for 20 lifetime and had last won a race a year ago in a Grade 3 at Woodbine over a synthetic surface. Cautious Giant was entered as a rabbit to force the early pace, but hadn’t really been in front for very long since a downhill turf sprint at Santa Anita in March. Tu Brutus had won an $98k stakes at Belmont in May by 11 lengths. As Porky Pig might say, "Th-Th-The, Th-Th-The, Th-Th... That's all, folks!"

Racing gods have fingerprints on this one. They’re behind the curtain arranging the furniture. Pulling strings. Setting the stage for a titanic heavyweight clash between Gun Runner and Arrogate in November at Del Mar in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. ‘The Battle at the Beach!’ For drama’s sake racing gods required Arrogate take a dive in the San Diego Handicap. Kiss the canvas. Throw the fight. Makes him appear vulnerable. Boosts the gate. Don’t agree? How else can one explain a no-show performance by the world’s number one equine? Of course, according to script, Arrogate will bounce back in the Pacific Classic a week from Saturday and win impressively; reigns gathered snuggly in Smitty’s hands. That must happen in order for this extensive production to succeed. A second poor performance by Arrogate will send the son of Unbridled’s Song to the breeding shed quicker than you can say ‘My New Kentucky Home.’   

If one doubts divine intervention in the promotion of a November Gun Runner/Arrogate BC Classic showdown then how does one explain the implausible manifestation of the ‘fifth horseshoe’ that miraculously appeared in Gun Runner’s tail during the Whitney? Assorted veteran racetrackers readily admit that they’ve never seen such a thing--a horseshoe fly from one horse’s hoof, into the air, bounce off a horse’s rump and finally come to rest tangled in a winning horse’s tail. And that’s from a sample size of hundreds of thousands of races! Plus, this was no ordinary stage. This was The Whitney! A Grade 1 Saratoga institution presented for the 90th time Saturday and, coincidentally, televised nationally by NBC! One needn’t be a conspiracist to connect the dots.   

According to his handlers, Gun Runner’s next engagement could be in the Woodward also at Saratoga and then in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Arrogate worked well at Del Mar and is confirmed for the Pacific Classic. No extended plans have been announced, but it’s conceivable he could train up to the BC Classic.

They have clashed twice and Arrogate boasts a 2-0 advantage over Gun Runner—in his coming out party a year ago at the Spa the former bested the latter by 15 lengths in the Travers and then by 2 ¼ lengths in Dubai. They say, ‘Third time’s the charm.’ If that’s the case and Gun Runner finally turns the tables on Arrogate in the BC Classic, yours truly promises to let go of what happened in Dubai. Until then, respect and props to Gun Runner who wears the shoe. However, Arrogate still wears the crown.

Race On!