The move appeared to be audaciously early, but Florent Geroux knew what he had.
Still on the backstretch in the $1.2 million Whitney Stakes (G1) Aug. 5, Gun Runner made short work of 62-1 pacesetter Cautious Giant after he tracked behind easy fractions, and assumed control outside the half-mile pole at Saratoga Race Course.
"I was like, 'Pick it up a notch,'" Geroux said of his position behind the longshot leader. "At the five-eighths pole, I said, 'I am going to take over from here. You are trying to slow me down.' I wanted to keep my horse to a nice, easy breeze. I didn't want to fight with him. ... He's a beast. ... He can do it all."
"Florent showed a lot of confidence in him to take the lead when he did," said trainer Steve Asmussen. "There's a lot of pressure under those circumstances. ... But he knows the horse, and I think that's a testament to Florent's faith in Gun Runner."
Entered as a rabbit, Cautious Giant failed to pick up the pace. But he did leave Gun Runner with spoils of war—one of his shoes flew off and got caught in the eventual winner's tail.
"They'll probably blame me and say I told him to throw it at him," joked Cautious Giant's co-owner Ron Paolucci. "I'm going to call Asmussen and tell him I want my shoe back."
Cruising home on his lonesome under confident handling with the momento dangling behind, the 124-pound highweight drew away en route to a 5 1/4-length win—his second consecutive grade 1 off a seven-length romp in the June 17 Stephen Foster Handicap (G1). His closest challenger, Breaking Lucky, was passed in late stretch by deep closer Keen Ice , who galloped in for runner-up honors but was never a threat to the winner.
The final time for the 1 1/8-mile test was 1:47.71. Completing the order of finish were War Story, Discreet Lover, Tu Brutus, and the three-shoed Cautious Giant. Gun Runner returned $3.20, $2.30, and $2.10 as the 3-5 choice.
"When you're rewarded like Gun Runner has rewarded us for three years, you're just all-in on him," Asmussen said. "After the race that he won, you're very proud of how people feel about Gun Runner, and that's what you're defending. You want him held in that esteem. You want everybody as proud of him, or think as much of him, as you do."
The Whitney is a Breeders' Cup Challenge "Win and You're In" event for the Nov. 4 Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) at Del Mar. There, Gun Runner could encounter champion Arrogate for a rematch, should the world's highest-rated racehorse rebound from his fourth in the July 22 San Diego Handicap (G2). Arrogate won their two previous encounters, the March 25 Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline (G1), where Gun Runner finished second, and last year's Travers Stakes (G1), where the chestnut colt came in third for Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm.
"Obviously he's lost to him twice, so a rematch would be great, but I wish we didn't lose to him twice," said co-owner Ron Winchell. "Since the Travers, (Gun Runner is) a completely different horse, in my opinion. In Dubai it was a close race, but he got one-upped by a fantastic horse in Arrogate, so we're looking forward to trying him again.
"I think it's what people want to see. Obviously Arrogate's No. 1, and I think Gun Runner's probably No. 2 in people's eyes, so to see one and two run against each other—especially after Dubai, when Gun Runner was leading and Arrogate ran him down—I think it will be fun."
Meanwhile, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert isn't getting ahead of himself.
"I sure can't take him lightly. He's a great horse," he said of Gun Runner. "But I don't think that far ahead. I'm thinking about the next race here and making sure he is ready."
While Juddmonte Farms' four-time grade 1 winner Arrogate is scheduled to run back in the Aug. 19 Pacific Classic (G1) at Del Mar, Gun Runner could resurface in Saratoga's Sept. 2 Woodward Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1).
"I don't know if we're closing the gap," Winchell said. "Arrogate's got to come back and win his next race. Horses do that. None of them are invincible. So I'm not concerned that he's dropped off. Now, if he loses another race, that's something else."
Bred in Kentucky by Besilu Stables, the 4-year-old Candy Ride colt is out of the graded stakes-winning Giant's Causeway mare Quiet Giant. Gun Runner has been remarkably consistent and durable throughout his career. Never worse than the fifth he ran on an off track in the 2016 Betfair.com Haskell Invitational (G1), he picked up his first grade 1 over elders in the 2016 Clark Handicap (G1) to cap a 3-year-old season that saw him win the Veterans Ford Risen Star Stakes (G2), Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby (G2), and Matt Winn Stakes (G3). He finished third in last year's Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1), second in the Pennsylvania Derby (G2), and second in the Las Vegas Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (G1), in addition to his Travers third.
Gun Runner kicked off his 2017 campaign with an authoritative victory in the Razorback Handicap (G3) at Oaklawn Park before his Dubai trip. Overall he has earnings of $5,288,500 with a 9-3-2 record from 16 starts.
"If you look back into his breeding, it looks like the family gets better over time, so especially prior to the Derby, we were hoping he'd get better at the Derby, but we knew as a 4-year-old he would get better," Winchell said. "When you buy a horse, you always expect the best and then you kind of work back from there. ... Last year the goal was to run in the (Breeders' Cup Dirt) Mile and this year run in the Classic. Sometimes your plans don't come to fruition, but this time it's going that direction."