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Gun Runner, 2017 horse of the year, wins world’s richest race in his final run

Florent Geroux, Gun Runner
Jockey Florent Geroux (10) rides Gun Runner to victory in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational on Saturday at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla.
(Lynne Sladky / Associated Press)

With a short run to the first turn, breaking from the outside at Gulfstream Park can be both treacherous and soul-crushing. That is unless you’re Gun Runner, who proved why he was voted horse of the year by winning the $16 million Pegasus World Cup in convincing fashion Saturday afternoon.

All the talk before the race was how difficult it was to win a 1 1/8-mile race from the outside posts because of the very short run to the first turn. Gun Runner was in the No. 10 post, but jockey Florent Geroux literally gunned his horse out of the gate and settled on or near the lead with Collected until the middle of the far turn.

That’s when Gun Runner moved in front and it looked as if West Coast would challenge him entering the homestretch. But by mid-stretch it was clear that this horse was not to be beat in the richest horse race in the world. He won by 2½ lengths.

“I’m so impressed for him to come through like he did and overcome the draw,” trainer Steve Asmussen said. “I’m just so proud of the horse. What a dream come true.

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“He has improved with every opportunity. Even when he didn’t have success, he moved forward from it. I’m so pleased to be in his presence. The memory will be with us forever.”

Gun Runner never had the star appeal of horses such as American Pharoah, Arrogate and California Chrome despite being in the upper reaches of the sport. He missed last year’s Pegasus after an equine herpes virus quarantined horses at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. He passed the required blood test but his owners refused to allow vets to take a nasal swab that would have allowed him to ship to Gulfstream. They feared that a false positive on the nasal test would change the year-long path they had outlined for him.

He won his first race back in Arkansas, finished second to Arrogate in Dubai, and then won his past four races, culminating with the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar.

Gun Runner is done racing now, heading off to the breeding shed and leaving the sport without a star to rally around. The mantle to carry the struggling sport may fall to West Coast, who finished second and beat third-place Gunnevera by 10¾ lengths.

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So, is West Coast the best horse currently left racing?

Florent Geroux, Gun Runner
Jockey Florent Geroux reacts after riding Gun Runner to win the Pegasus World Cup.
(Lynne Sladky / Associated Press )

“Unless they bring that son of a gun back,” quipped Bob Baffert, West Coast’s trainer.

“West Coast came with a huge run,” Baffert said. “Turning for home I thought Gun Runner might be a little empty but his tank is so big and he just kept going. He’s just such a great horse. …”

“They were going right along and I was thinking with West Coast, maybe this was my turn. It could happen; a new sheriff in town. Gun Runner didn’t want any part of that. He was going to win this race.”

Baffert hedged his bet if West Coast would be headed to Dubai for the world’s second-richest race.

“I don’t know,” Baffert said. “I have to sit down with [owner] Gary West and get [the horse] back. We want to do what’s right for the horse, to defer to the horse to let us know what’s going on.”

Baffert also had Collected, who finished seventh in the 12-horse race. The other Southern California entrant, Giant Expectations, for trainer Peter Eurton, was ninth.

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Fear the Cowboy finished fourth followed by Seeking The Soul and Stellar Wind, who retired after the Breeders’ Cup but was brought back by her new owners.

Gun Runner, the even-money favorite, paid $4.20, $3.00 and $2.80.

There was speculation that they could end the talk about the short run to the first turn by moving the race, possibly to Santa Anita next year. Belinda Stronach, president and chairman of The Stronach Group, which owns Gulfstream, Santa Anita and other tracks, ended that talk by emphatically saying it is returning to Gulfstream next year.

She referenced a $30-million, 110-foot statue of Pegasus, the horse, that sits in the parking lot outside the track and casino, saying if you can’t move the statue, you can’t move the race.

The post-race news conference, usually filled with hyperbole, positivity and idolatry, turned bizarre when Frank Stronach, who founded the company, went on a mini-rant about how the sport is grossly underperforming and the various groups that comprise the sport need to work together.

By the time the press conference ended, few were thinking about the future of the sport; rather, they were relishing the last race of one of the greats, even though they didn’t realize he was so great until near the end.

johnacherwa@gmail.com

@jcherwa

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