By Sid Fernando
Two weeks ago, when I wrote the column “First Crops Yield Derby and Oaks Winners,” I'd expected to write about Taiba (Gun Runner) and Secret Oath (Arrogate), the two I'd liked the most in the Gl Kentucky Derby and Gl Kentucky Oaks, respectively. I'd spoken mainly about those two on Steve Byk's popular SiriusXM program “At the Races,” and my feeling was that Gun Runner in particular was on a trajectory to get a first-crop Classic winner. His start at stud had been exceptional with his first juveniles, and the momentum was carrying forward with his 3-year-olds, headed by Taiba, who'd won the Gl Santa Anita Derby in only his second start; Cyberknife, who'd accounted for the Gl Arkansas Derby from a field that included Secret Oath; and Early Voting, who'd lost the Gll Wood Memorial in a photo to Mo Donegal (Uncle Mo) in only his third start. Instead, my column was about Rich Strike (Keen Ice) and Secret Oath.
Last week, Byk asked for my opinion on the Gl Preakness. My choices, I told him, were Early Voting (Gun Runner) and Secret Oath. There were plenty of reasons and handicapping angles for which to like Early Voting, entering the Preakness on a similar path traveled by his connections' 2017 Preakness winner Cloud Computing, a first-crop Classic winner for Maclean's Music. But my primary reason for picking Early Voting, like Taiba in the Derby, was all about Gun Runner. “I just think, Steve, that Gun Runner is such a good stallion, and he's going to get a first-crop Classic winner,” I'd said.
Early Voting defeated race favorite Epicenter (Not This Time) to land the Classic, his first top-level win.
After the race, Steve Asmussen, who trains Preakness and Derby runner-up Epicenter and conditioned Gun Runner, told the Pimlico media team: “The silver lining on that is Gun Runner is probably the greatest sire of all time. He's incredible.”
That's hyperbole, of course, but Gun Runner is certainly on a special trajectory, and who knows? Before Early Voting, Gun Runner had already sired four Grade l winners from his first crop, and now he has an astonishing five, with plenty of racing yet to come for his 3-year-olds, who could become even better at four and five, as he did. Gun Runner didn't win his first top-level race until late in his 3-year-old season, and at four he was outstanding, winning four Grade l events. At five, he won the Gl Pegasus World Cup in January before entering stud at Three Chimneys, which campaigned the horse with Winchell Thoroughbreds, the owner of Epicenter.
Could Gun Runner end up with six or seven Grade l winners from his first crop? It's a jaw-dropping possibility, but having five already is heady enough. With the massive books stallions cover these days, it's unfair to compare horses from different eras purely by first-crop Grade I winners, but suffice to say Gun Runner has sired more of them more quickly than any other active sire in North America, which includes such outstanding stallions as Into Mischief, Tapit, War Front, Curlin, Uncle Mo, Quality Road, Speightstown, Medaglia d'Oro, and his own sire, Candy Ride (Arg), who got four in his first crop.
In a different era, Gainesway's Blushing Groom (Fr), a foal of 1974, sired five first-crop Grade/Group 1 winners, and in Europe, the iconic Sadler's Wells, a foal of 1981, got six. More recently, Sadler's Wells's son Montjeu (Ire), a foal of 1996, got five Northern Hemisphere-bred Group 1 winners from his first crop, and Frankel (GB), who was born in 2008 and is by Sadler's Wells's greatest sire son, Galileo (Ire), got six. This isn't necessarily a comprehensive list, but it paints the picture of the company that Gun Runner is rubbing shoulders with as his stud career unfolds, and it's safe to say he's sired his first five Grade l winners quicker than any of them. All of these named here with five or more also sired a first-crop Classic winner.
Most stallions tend to have their best results in their first crops. Three Chimneys is certainly aware of this, having stood Slew o' Gold, who got four Grade l winners in his first crop and nothing thereafter approaching that level of success. Exceptional stallions, however, will gut it out with their second, third, and fourth crops and rebound as they get better mares again.
Likewise, exceptional sires will sometimes appear from unlikely branches of major stallions. This was the case with California-bred Tiznow, the broodmare sire of Early Voting. Tiznow was sired by the stakes-placed California stallion Cee's Tizzy, a son of the In Reality horse Relaunch.
More recently, Uncle Mo is such an example. His California-bred sire Indian Charlie was by California-based In Excess (Ire), a son of the Caro (Ire) stallion Siberian Express.
Both Caro and In Reality were outstanding sires who had a number of top sons at stud, but the existence of their lines in North America now runs through obscure branches that resuscitated them after the bigger names failed to carry on the lines. The same paradigm is true for Gun Runner, who traces to Fappiano through the sequence Candy Ride/Ride the Rails/Cryptoclearance/Fappiano.
Fappiano is mainly represented in North America through Unbridled's sire sons Empire Maker and Unbridled's Song, both of whom are now dead. Empire Maker's son Pioneerof the Nile, also dead, is the sire of American Pharoah, while Unbridled's Song's son Arrogate, also dead, is the sire of Secret Oath. Candy Ride, who entered stud for only $10,000, improbably brought his branch of Fappiano to the fore to compete with the established lines of Fappiano, and now his son Gun Runner is blowing it up to a level that may surpass the tail-male influences of Empire Maker and Unbridled's Song. And Gun Runner isn't the only one; Candy Ride is also the sire of the excellent Twirling Candy–responsible for last year's Preakness winner Rombauer– plus a bunch of other young stallions with runners on the way.
Here's something else that makes this story even more interesting: Bred by Haras Abolengo, Candy Ride, who isn't a particularly eye-catching or sizable individual, had several veterinary issues and twice failed examinations before selling to Gumercindo Alonzo for the equivalent of $12,000 as a yearling. Nonetheless, he was an exceptional if brittle racehorse, undefeated in three starts in Argentina and three starts in North America.
This same affinity for Storm Cat is evident in Gun Runner's early success as well. Early Voting's second dam is by Storm Cat, who's also in the pedigrees of two other Grade l winners by the stallion. In fact, five of Gun Runner's Graded winners have Storm Cat in their pedigrees, and altogether six of his 11 black-type winners do.
After Gun Runner was first retired to Three Chimneys, I had the opportunity to inspect him and was struck by how balanced he was, so much so that he didn't appear to the eye to be as tall as the 16.2 hands he is. At the time, he was five and had furnished significantly from his days as a somewhat immature-looking 3-year-old, but nonetheless he carried some refinement to him that seemed as if it would complement more muscular physiques, like the ones provided by Storm Cat. It made sense then, and judging by results, it makes sense now.
Sid Fernando is president and CEO of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants, Inc., originator of the Werk Nick Rating and eNicks.