The overriding question going into Saturday’s $16 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational is whether anyone can stop favorite Gun Runner from a $7 million perfect ending to a sterling career.
The newly named Horse of the Year is a strong 4-5 morning line choice in a field of 12 set to post at 5:40 p.m. at Gulfstream Park.
What will never be answered is what may have happened if Gun Runner had been given the opportunity to engage rival Arrogate in last year’s inaugural running of the world’s richest horse race.
Winner of 5 of 6 starts in 2017, including the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Gun Runner was kept out of the Pegasus field due to circumstances surrounding an outbreak of the highly contagious EHV-1 equine herpesvirus at the New Orleans Fair Grounds track where he was stabled.
A quarantine was lifted there a week before the Pegasus. Gun Runner, who tested negative in a blood test for EHV-1, had a deal to run for one of the 12 stakeholders
But Gulfstream officials, taking the cautious approach, required that he also submit to a nasal swab. Gun Runner’s owners declined on the basis that the nasal swab has a 15 percent chance of yielding a false positive, which would have subjected the horse to an additional quarantine and derailed their plans for the year.
Asked about it this week, trainer Steve Asmussen pointed to Gun Runner’s storybook season and the Eclipse Award, announced Thursday at Gulfstream, as validating the decision.
“What we felt like last year before the Pegasus was that we were going to have a very good year with him whether we got to run or not and cannot lose sight of that and to stay the course,” Asmussen said.
Tim Ritvo, Gulfstream Park COO, said this week, “I mean, the last thing we wanted to do was keep a horse of his caliber out of the race. There was a lot of pressure from not just the facility but – and lots of other participants in the race – but also other stables that were concerned about the widespreadness of this.”
Arrogate won the $7 million payoff in the Pegasus and later caught Gun Runner in a spectacular last-to-first dash in the Dubai World Cup. But Gun Runner dominated the second half of the season and got the last word in winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic while Arrogate faded to a tie for fifth and subsequently was retired.
Gun Runner, a 5-year-old owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm, will retire after Saturday and will attempt to avoid the final-race fate of two-time Horse of the Year California Chrome, who went out with a disappointing ninth-place finish in last year’s Pegasus.
“I love the position that Gun Runner is in as far as how everybody has spoken of him since the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and we just want that to continue,” Asmussen said.
“He is a horse that has garnered a lot of respect and we want him to show his true self. We all know this is his last race and nothing would be better than for him to go out on top.”
The veteran trainer said Gun Runner’s performance in the Classic was “my strongest run to date of probably any horse.”
He bolted to the front, led at every station and easily held off challenges in the stretch at Santa Anita.
A similar showing is no certainty, though his workouts have been impressive.
But the Pegasus is a newcomer on the racing scene that trainers didn’t have to account for until last year. Conceived by Gulfstream owner Frank Stronach, it was designed to add an elite event to the calendar with an eye-opening purse to provide incentive for extending the careers of horses like Gun Runner.
“Last year, he was back in training for the Breeders’ Cup and hoping for the year that he did put together that culminated with him being named Horse of the Year,” Asmussen said. “That was the plan, not [this race] 10 weeks later.”
He added, “Glad we have him to do it with.”
Gun Runner has won 11 of 18 starts, including 5 of 7 at 1 1/8 miles, the Pegasus Cup distance.
The next four finishers of the Breeders’ Cup (excluding Arrogate) – the Bob Baffert-trained duo, Collected and West Coast, along with War Story and Gulfstream-based Gunnevera – will challenge him again.
Other intriguing factors in a deep field include Stellar Wind, the 6-year-old daughter of Curlin and the only female in the race; and Sharp Azteca, a mile specialist who has won 3 of 5 starts at Gulfstream but has never gone 1 1/8.
Starting from the No. 10 post, Gun Runner will have a challenging trip to the front on the very short run-up to the first turn — last year California Chrome struggled starting in the No. 12 spot.
But jockey Mike Smith, who rode Arrogate to victory last year for Baffert and will be aboard Collected, said: “What’s so hard to beat Gun Runner is he’s not a one-dimensional horse. You know, he’s not a horse that needs a lead. He’s a horse that if they go quick enough, we’ve all seen him lag, you know, second, third, fourth, and still run just as well as when he’s had a comfortable lead.”
French-born jockey Florent Geroux, who has ridden Gun Runner in his past 15 races, spanning nine wins and nearly $9 million in purses, was in Chicago on Friday taking the oral test to become a naturalized citizen. Geroux recently lost his father, who died from head injuries sustained in a fall on Christmas Eve in France.
Those are among the elements contributing to what Asmussen described as an “extremely emotional” week for the entire Gun Runner team leading to his final race.
Considering all that has transpired in the past year, it is understandable that Asmussen didn’t directly address a question about whether winning the Pegasus would be sweeter after being excluded last time.
“I very much want Gun Runner to go out the way that we feel that he deserves and that would be on top and heralded like he has been since the Breeders’ Cup Classic,” he said.
Reflecting on the situation a year ago, Gulfstream’s Ritvo said: “I mean, the greatest horse that he is, we would’ve loved to have him last year. Would’ve helped with the pari-mutuel handle. … He’s a great, great horse and now he’s even a better horse than then. And we’re just thrilled to have him this year and we’re real sorry we – you know, I know there was a lot of anxious times and a lot of back and forth rhetoric, but the bottom line is, we had to play on the side of caution for all the other valuable horses that were here.”