Monday, January 29, 2018

Gun Runner Under the Big Top

One of the things that I love but take for granted about being a turf writer and public handicapper happens the day immediately following a wild weekend of events.

And if you think that the staging of the Eclipse Awards and the world’s richest horse race at one venue within a 48-hour period isn’t a whirlwind, you might as well stop reading right now.

As I arrived at Gulfstream Park earlier than I wanted Sunday morning--too late to catch a glimpse of Gun Runner being loaded onto an airport-bound van but two months too early for a scheduled interview--I was awed by the efficiency of circus life at the racetrack.

It was shortly before 9 am and it was as if the Pegasus World Cup Invitational--with its hoopla, tents and the specially constructed VIP Cabana meant to shelter deep-pocketed attendees from the elements and an inquisitive media--never happened.

The traffic gates that separate one parking area from another were neatly lined up for that task, just like would on any other day after an event with one notable exception:

There was a bit more buzz expected in the building as Pegasus high rollers remained in town to throw their money at a $4-million Rainbow, spending another $16 million to share in what became a humongous pool. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.

Appropriately, the festivities began Thursday evening with a libation, a ”Keeneland Breeze,” the server called it, a mash-up of bourbon, Triple Sec and ginger ale, the cocktail hour courtesy of the Keeneland Association—your bloated takeout dollars at work.

Serious bourbon drinkers seemed offended by the blasphemy of it--a fellow sipper whispering he thought it was a great waste of perfectly good Maker’s Mark. “Perhaps,” I said, “but we get to keep the cool souvenir glasses.”

In keeping with Eclipse Award tradition, the program went on far too long, a tad over three hours. In keeping with Gulfstream Park tradition, the program was delayed approximately six minutes. (I set the over-under line at six minutes. To celebrate, I drained a second souvenir glass).

Attempting to raise the program a notch, Nick Luck of NBC Sports was brought in as host. I heard criticisms of Luck the next day which were entirely unfair. The Eclipse audience is the toughest in sports entertainment. TVG does excellent work day-to-day. Unfortunately, broadcasting the Eclipse Awards live isn’t one of them.

On several occasions, Mr. Luck had to direct an idle music ensemble to play the award winners off stage to give the ceremony a Grade 1 veneer. As one presenter, Tom Durkin, explained, a long program is inevitable when giving 22 awards to 22 large groups in one evening.

Poignant highlights were trainer Peter Miller’s heart-rending recollection of the San Luis Rey fire that claimed five of his horses, becoming emotional in praise of his team and other backstretch workers who put themselves in harm’s way to keep loss of equine life to a minimum. Ultimately, his barn burned to the ground.
Frank Stronach, the Proud Grandfather of Nicole Walker
- Photo by Toni Pricci

Another emotive moment was Frank Stronach’s acceptance of the Eclipse Award of Merit for his countless contributions. I especially liked his pledge to continue growing the sport before challenging, in a collegial way, the movers and shakers present to help him correct racing’s most serious issues and find new, better way to market the game.


Like most modern players tethered to the Thoroughbred, I watch almost all horse races on television even when at the track. In short, it’s the best view. But not big racing events. If present, I want to feel the big race, so I watch the big one on the apron with the fans.

With wife Toni at my side and broadcaster Ron Flatter of VSiN one step above, we watched from the steps of the stairway hard by the horse-path that leads to reserved seating and Ten Palms trackside restaurant, perhaps 30 yards from the starting gate. We had the best stoop in the house.

Two aspects stuck out from the view on the steps: that the 2017 Horse of the Year broke like a rocket ship and followed Collected, sitting right off his right flank while sharp breaking West Coast eased back into a perfect-pocket as the triad entered the backside.

And where the hell is Sharp Azteca, anyway?!

Gun Runners' First Jump - Photo by Jon Kral
After reappearing from behind the giant matrix board, even the naked eye could see that Florent Geroux was holding a loaded Gun Runner, ready to pounce on cue. Ever dangerous West Coast and Javier Castellano were sitting right there, waiting to pounce on Gun Runner once that one pounced on Collected.

At the three-eighths pole, Gun Runner made his move, swallowing Collected rather easily and Castellano sensed it. He moved immediately closer so that Gun Runner wouldn’t gain too much separation on him. The rest of the field was nowhere; these two would decide it.

I’ve been a fan of Gun Runner since his Triple Crown prep season, for selfish reasons. I never lost a significant win or exacta wager since he memorably, and significantly, won the Risen Star ($12.20), Louisiana Derby (9.80), Clark (6.20) and Breeders’ Cup Classic (6.80).

But it was about more than money. Gun Runner was a newly crowned Horse of the Year champion. I can’t remember another of his class that improved as incrementally, as long, at such a high level. I became aware of form-cycle analysis two decades ago; his development was perfect.

Steve Asmussen played Gun Runner like Yo Yo Ma plays the cello, hitting every correct note with a horse the trainer freely admits made his task that much easier. For history, I wanted him to go out like a champion. He deserved the distinction because he earned it.

Gun Runner: Greatest Show on Earth
- Coglianese Photos
Leaving the quarter-pole, there was an instant when it appeared that West Coast might grab him, and that’s when Geroux asked him for his life, as jockeys are wont to say. Racing’s newest American turned out to be the perfect fit for the perfect racehorse:

“Be the big horse…be the big horse…be the big horse,” I yelled. They reached the wire and I smiled because he won and I was happy to be there and because there is no cheering in the press box. There’s plenty of time for nuanced analysis later on.

Like many in the racing media, I sometimes had issues with Gun Runner’s trainer. But I was happy for him, mostly because of his race horse and as elegant a rider as I’ve never met.

I intend to correct that oversight one day in the near future because he appears to be such a class act and because he wanted to become an American citizen in a nation of immigrants. And his dad would be so proud.

God permitting there will be a time for that, one quiet morning after the Big Top has folded yet another tent.

Written by John Pricci

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