Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm's Gun Runner wrapped up his steady sophomore campaign with an exclamation point at the highest level Nov. 25, handily defeating older horses to earn his first grade I victory in one of the quickest editions of the $500,000 Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (gr. I) on record at Churchill Downs.
Gun Runner entered the 1 1/8-mile Clark off a runner-up finish in the Nov. 4 Las Vegas Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I) for trainer Steve Asmussen, and returned to winning ways for the first time since taking Churchill's June 18 Matt Winn Stakes (gr. III). That victory came after a third in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) for the 3-year-old son of Candy Ride , who was bred in Kentucky by Besilu Stables.
"I'm so proud of him," Asmussen said. "Walking him over, the horse has such confidence about him. He's kept his strength and his weight with the thousands of miles he's traveled this year on the stages that he's been on."
Gun Runner began his sophomore campaign with back-to-back victories in the Veterans Ford Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) and TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby (gr. II) at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, remained at Churchill after the Kentucky Derby to take the Matt Winn, shipped to Monmouth Park for a fifth in the betfair.com Haskell Invitational (gr. I), ran third in the Travers Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga Race Course, and was second in the Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II) at Parx Racing before stepping up against elders in his past two starts.
His solid effort behind Tamarkuz in the Dirt Mile at Santa Anita Park saw him head to the post for the Clark as the 2-1 favorite in a field of 10 that included four grade I winners, one of them 5-2 second-choice Noble Bird. When that rival broke flat-footed and failed to fire, Gun Runner and jockey Florent Geroux had things their way throughout.
"I was pretty confident up front," Geroux said. "He was always a good horse when he's forwardly placed and when Noble Bird wasn't there, I just took it from there and just let my horse do his thing and let him be comfortable and turning for home he showed me a super kick."
"We know how this happens," trainer Mark Casse said of Noble Bird's eventual seventh. "This is the way he is. When he doesn't break and get his way, he doesn't fire. And that was today."
Gun Runner, however, fired and kept on running. After early fractions of :23.72, :48, and 1:11.89, he had plenty left in the tank and opened up through a 1:36.33 mile. Geroux kept the chestnut colt to the task down the lane, and he responded with a 2 3/4-length victory over 46-1 shot Breaking Lucky. Woodward Stakes (gr. I) winner Shaman Ghost was 3 1/2 lengths back in third, and Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) victor Hoppertunity, who won the Clark in 2014, finished fourth.
The final time was 1:48.5 on a fast track, the fifth-fastest running of the Clark's 142 editions, and fastest since the stakes-record setting 2006 edition won by Premium Tap (1:47.39). Gun Runner was the first 3-year-old to defeat his elders in the Clark since Willis Horton's eventual 3-year-old champion Will Take Charge took the 2013 running.
"For him to beat this year's Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup winners at the end of his 3 -year-old year I think speaks wonderful things for him," Asmussen said. "Obviously, we will get together with Mr. Torrealba and the Three Chimneys group as well as Mr. Winchell and David Fiske and decide how to proceed with him. We saw an exceptional horse beat an exceptional field. He deserved it. With all the grade I winners he has beaten and for this to be his first grade I, I feel very confident it will not be his last."
Gun Runner returned $6.20, $4.20, and $3. Breaking Lucky brought $25.60 and $11, while Shaman Ghost paid $4.20. After Hoppertunity came Hawaakom, Effinex , Noble Bird, Are You Kidding Me, Prayer for Relief , and Mr. Z.
Out of the Giant's Causeway mare Quiet Giant, Gun Runner improved his record to 6-2-2 from 12 starts for earnings of $2,037,800. His win in the Clark was a first for his trainer, jockey, and the ownership group that campaigns him.