With exercise rider Andrew Garcia aboard, Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm's 4-year-old son of Candy Ride stepped onto the track a few minutes past 6:30 a.m. EDT. After a quick warm-up, Gun Runner worked alone and clocked :49 2/5 for the half-mile, moving through fractions of :13 and :24 4/5, with a gallop out to five furlongs in 1:03 2/5.
"Gun Runner is a very impressive horse. He put in his serious work in the last couple of weeks," Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen said of the colt, who breezed six furlongs in 1:12 June 5. "He just had a nice, easy half-mile today. Obviously we're very excited about running him Saturday."
The 1 1/8-mile Stephen Foster will be the third start of 2017 for the striking chestnut, who most recently ran a game second to champion Arrogate in the March 25 Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline (G1). Since returning from Dubai he's put in five other timed moves, all at Churchill Downs, and has impressed his conditioner with the way he bounced back from the overseas trip.
"We gave him a little bit of a break after the trip to Dubai," Asmussen said. "His training went very smoothly. We've had a couple of weather scares in there, but it worked out really well. I think he's put in plenty of work for the race Saturday.
"When we went over with Curlin , he was over there for six to eight weeks so it was significantly different than Gun Runner going over there for one race," the trainer said.
Two-time Horse of the Year Curlin won the 2008 Jaguar Trophy Handicap before taking the Dubai World Cup for Asmussen, then came home to crush the Stephen Foster field by 4 1/2 lengths.
"I think the similarity and what makes them special is how well they take circumstances," Asmussen said. "I was extremely pleased with how Gun Runner bounced out of a really tough World Cup run."
Although Gun Runner didn't come home from Dubai with a win, the runner—currently ranked fourth in the world on the Longines World's Best Racehorse Rankings—continues to flourish this year. Asmussen sees a horse who has improved on his 3-year-old season, when he won four graded stakes and placed in four others, including thirds in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) and Travers Stakes (G1).
After closing 2016 with a score in the Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (G1) at Churchill in November, the chestnut runner started 2017 off with a dominating 5 3/4-length victory in the Razorback Handicap (G3) in February at Oaklawn Park before going to Dubai.
"I think that he's just physically developed," Asmussen said of his charge, who will have regular jockey Florent Geroux in the irons Saturday. "We had a lot of confidence last year in his ability, but we felt physically, as well as pedigree-wise, that he would get better (this year) and I think that's proven to be true.
"We were talking after his work last week, he just seems to get a little better all the time."
As for the competition he may face from other Stephen Foster probables, including multiple graded stakes winner Bird Song —the speedy, front-running winner of the May 5 Alysheba Stakes Presented by Big Fish Casino (G2)—the plan stays the same for Gun Runner.
"I think that Gun Runner has established himself," Asmussen added. "(With) Florent's level of confidence in him, as well as he knows him, (the plan) is to do whatever is best for him regardless of the position another horse wants in the race."
Although the team hasn't decided what's next after Saturday for Gun Runner in 2017, his trainer isn't ruling out another shot at the best horse in the world.
"We need to worry about ourselves and those things are out of our hands," he said, after being asked if he'd put Gun Runner in a position to take on Arrogate again. "But it's safe to say we haven't given up."
Bred in Kentucky by Besilu Stables, Gun Runner is out of the grade 2-winning Giant's Causeway mare Quiet Giant. He has a 7-3-2 record from 14 starts, with earnings of $4,337,800.
Asmussen also added Monday that his two classic contenders, Lookin At Lee and Hence, are doing well. While there is no plan yet for Lookin At Lee, the Kentucky Derby runner-up who ran fourth in the Preakness Stakes (G1) and seventh in the June 10 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1), the trainer said the Lookin At Lucky colt will stay at Belmont Park and will rejoin his stable at Saratoga Race Course later in the summer. Hence, 11th in the Derby and ninth in the Preakness, will point toward the July 7 Iowa Derby (G3) at Prairie Meadows.
"We feel really good about that race for him," Asmussen said.
"(Lookin At Lee) will stay up there and join the stable when we go to Saratoga. Stay at Belmont, spend a little time in the round pen, eat a little grass. We have to reward him for a tough campaign this spring."