The reality begin to hit trainer Steve Asmussen when he walked by a certain stall at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots about 10 days earlier and realized its occupant wasn't coming back.
The emptiness was brought on for a good reason, of course—namely the fact that the barn's superstar Gun Runner had departed his New Orleans base to put an exclamation point on his championship résumé in the Jan. 27 Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes (G1) at Gulfstream Park. And as has been the norm where the son of Candy Ride is concerned, he indeed delivered one last mic drop Saturday evening, drawing off to a 2 1/2-length triumph in his final competitive outing before heading to Three Chimneys Farm to begin his stud career.
So as Asmussen and longtime head assistant Scott Blasi went through the morning-after routine one last time Jan. 28, seeing how the 2017 Horse of the Year emerged from his latest triumph, the steely-eyed boss was already planning his emotional exit strategy. He couldn't bear to watch the horse who had spoiled his team beyond expectations leave his care for good this time. So he headed to the airport, packed to the gills with gratitude.
"Uh-uh, No. That'd be like watching Santa take your presents," Asmussen said when asked if he was staying to watch Gun Runner load onto the van Sunday. "It hasn't hit (Blasi) yet. It hit me in New Orleans, because I stayed there. And walking by that stall knowing (Gun Runner) isn't coming back in it ... I called Scott up and said 'You tell me who to put in this stall because I'm not walking by that SOB empty again.'
"I can't imagine what Scott feels like."
The only thing brighter than Gun Runner's attitude Sunday morning was the wattage of Asmussen's smile as he soaked in every precious moment with the horse who answered almost every bell in his 19-race career. Less than 24 hours after watching the 5-year-old copper bullet overcome his wide post and treat his would-be challengers with his usual level of distain, Gun Runner's human caretakers hounded the six-time grade 1 winner with affection, planting hug after kiss after pat upon him while indulging him with all the baby carrots he would accept.
Saying goodbye to your protégés is part of being a horseman, not that the process ever gets any easier. For all the bittersweet feelings rolling through his mind, though, Asmussen moved with the bounce of a man free of a massive weight on his shoulders courtesy of Gun Runner doing his usual deal—taking care of everyone around him.
"I don't know if I've ever wanted anything in a horse race more than I wanted yesterday," Asmussen said of Gun Runner's Pegasus triumph. "He has built up a fan base over his three years of running that has just been fabulous, and so many people were so happy for Gun Runner and to see him win in such style, that was the overwhelming feeling."
The most brilliant of writers couldn't have come up with a more perfect final script than his Pegasus run in an attempt to capture what makes Gun Runner the superior athlete he is. Not only was he unfazed by the wide starting point, he didn't flinch when Collected took control of the pace up front, and he had more than enough reserve to call upon when West Coast tried to mount a threat around the far turn.
His unflappable mindset and freakish level of soundness have allowed him to turn the most stout of challenges on paper into common exercises. As he departed the care of Asmussen's barn one last time Sunday, the realization of how rare a being they had been privileged to be part of was almost too much even for those who have been there and done that a thousand times over to soak in.
"What an exclamation point. For him to win the Breeders' Cup, be crowned Horse of the Year and then win the world's richest race on Saturday is a dream come true," Asmussen said. "The outpouring of support and admiration for him just feels wonderful. And he's in very good hands (at Three Chimneys). I guess it's my turn to call them instead of them calling me."
By 1:15 p.m. ET Sunday afternoon Gun Runner arrived safe and sound at his new home, with two weeks to go before the opening of the breeding shed.