It wasn’t the passing of the torch. It wasn’t a race for the ages. In some ways it epitomized the strengths and weaknesses of the Del Mar racetrack. But Gun Runner, a horse from the East, took everything the west could throw at him Saturday to win the the $6-million Breeders’ Cup Classic.
It was the first time in four years that trainer Bob Baffert didn’t win the race, and he had four horses in it. In fact, Baffert, considered by many to be the sport’s most elite trainer, didn’t win a race over two days of the Breeders’ Cup.
Del Mar was part of the story, influencing several outcomes, in the 13 million-dollar races. The short stretch meant that horses had to be on or near the lead to win a race. Only one of the races was won by a favorite, World Approval in the Mile, which can also be attributed to the big fields.
Some horses, like the all-time leading money earner in North America, Arrogate, failed to win on this surface for the third time in as many tries. It appeared the winner of last year’s Classic at Santa Anita, as well as the Pegasus and Dubai World Cup, could never get used to the Del Mar racing surface, which had been refurbished after the track had 17 horse fatalities at last year’s summer meeting.
All of this is to take nothing away from Gun Runner, whose front-running style was perfect in this 1 1/4-mile race. He held the lead at every call over Collected until he pulled away mid-stretch to win by 2 1/4 lengths. Collected finished 1 1/4 lengths in front of Baffert stablemate West Coast to keep second.
Arrogate, the 2-1 favorite, ducked in at the start and then spent most of the race near the back and could never gain significant ground, finishing in a dead heat for fifth with Gunnevera.
“He just doesn’t like this track,” said Mike Smith, Arrogate’s jockey. “For whatever reason, I hate to say it, he has shown it time and time again and showed it today. [His poor start] is what he’s been doing every time he runs here. When he’s on his A race, he’s one of the fastest horses we have ever seen. He just won’t run over here. I have tried to talk myself into thinking he would. He has just showed me time and time again that he wouldn’t.”
War Story was fourth. The remainder of the field, in order of finish, was Churchill, Mubtaahij, War Decree, Pavel and Win The Space.
“He’s like a pitcher who can’t find the plate,” Baffert said of Arrogate. “I hate to make any excuses for the big horse, but he’s just not the horse he was. He’s run so many incredible races that I really think he’s just losing interest. … It’s time [for him to retire.]”
Gun Runner was not a horse that suddenly burst on the scene. He has 11 wins in 18 starts, including five Grade 1s. He ran third behind Nyquist and Exxagerator in the Kentucky Derby two years ago. Gun Runner was second to Arrogate in Dubai. He won his previous race, the Woodward at Saratoga, by 10 ¼ lengths. He was even the morning-line favorite at 9-5, but the betting public put him behind Arrogate.
“Incredible horse,” said winning trainer Steve Asmussen. “We did the right things at the right time and all that made it special. What an awesome feeling this is. [Jockey] Florent [Geroux] has the ultimate confidence in Gun Runner and he rode Gun Runner. … I’m the lucky trainer of the horse of the year.”
Gun Runner paid $6.80, $4.40 and $3.20 and upped his lifetime earnings to almost $9 million.
The owners were coy if Gun Runner will come back for another full year of racing or go to stud. Although, it does appear that the colt will go to the Pegasus at Gulfstream in January, before the start of the breeding season.
This was the first time the seaside track has ever hosted the Breeders’ Cup, and by most accounts it was a huge success. The crowd was capped at less than 38,000 because of the difficulty of getting to the track, parking and then leaving. But having a lower attendance works if the prices are raised, which is easy to do with the high-roller horse owner crowd.
Will it return to the place that calls itself “where the surf meets the turf?” Probably, but likely not immediately.
Churchill Downs hosts next year and it’s expected that it will return to Santa Anita for the 10th time the year after that. The Stronach Group is lobbying to bring the event to Laurel in Maryland. But who knows?
Those who paid the high prices can leave this year’s event feeling they saw horse racing’s past (Arrogate), present (Gun Runner) and future (the best 2-year-olds). That’s not a bad thing.
Follow John Cherwa on Twitter @jcherwa