Top Gun Lands Running

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Gun Runner | Sarah Andrew

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Everyone knows how the system works; how lavishly choreographed is the promotion of new sires. Center stage is cleared, the footlights are turned up, the make-up and costume departments go into overdrive. But we also know that most of them will go out there, clear their throats nervously, and murmur a few lines that barely qualify them, in the longer term, for a place in the back row of the chorus line.

Every now and then, however, one of these rookies steps up and you sense within moments that a star may have been born. With the authority and assurance of one who has been doing it for years, he brings the house down.

Horses being what they, we can still be deceived. After last weekend, however, it already feels possible that we're looking at a novice somewhat out of the ordinary in Gun Runner.

For one who had put together his Horse of the Year campaign round two turns as a 4-year-old, the son of Candy Ride (Arg) had already made a pretty remarkable start. In fact, he had produced three five-furlong maiden winners out of Tapit mares, a mating formula that would on paper entitle you to be dreaming of next year's Classics.

On Sunday one of that trio, Wicked Halo, showed blazing speed to win the GII Adirondack S. at Saratoga–complementing the success, only the previous day, of Pappacap in the GII Best Pal S. at Del Mar. Coast to coast; left uppercut, right hook. And on the eve of the Saratoga Sale! Little wonder if Gun Runner's two colts there brought $850,000 and $550,000, respectively.

Monday's $850,000 Gun Runner colt sold to Maverick Racing | Fasig-Tipton

To be fair, his debut crop last year had certainly matched their billing. Having been launched at $70,000 by Three Chimneys (only the ill-fated Arrogate was higher, at $75,000), he duly topped the freshman averages at $246,413 for 46 sold of 71 into the ring. An unexceptional clearance rate, perhaps, but there were some pretty purposeful RNAs (up to $435,000) and their potential to appeal still more with maturity was measured by a spectacular pinhook for Hartley/DeRenzo, who catapulted a $140,000 Fasig-Tipton October colt into a $1.7-million Gulfstream 2-year-old.

Even so, he was obviously approaching the same crossroads as the rest of the intake, with commercial breeders nowadays so wary of being exposed by stock actually venturing onto the racetrack. Under the additional strain of a pandemic market, Gun Runner duly received a generous cut to $50,000 this spring. Right now, you'd already guess that price to be in the rear-view mirror.

Because the fact is that most of us weren't expecting to see Gun Runner begin to show his hand until after Saratoga. Certainly he wasn't under the same sort of pressure as Practical Joke and Caravaggio, as elite juveniles by Into Mischief and Scat Daddy, respectively. Both have stepped up and produced precocious animals in their own image, the former with Wit and the latter with a class-high 14 winners to date. As such, Gun Runner would be doing extraordinarily well even to be lying up with that pair–never mind actually to have opened up a big lead in the earnings table.

'TDN Rising Star' Echo Zulu | Sarah Andrew

His nine winners from 22 starters (and 103 named foals) also include an explosive 'TDN Rising Star' Echo Zulu, who clocked the top filly Beyer of the crop when romping by 5 1/2 lengths on debut at Saratoga last month.

Even Doug Cauthen, vice-chairman of Three Chimneys Farm, has been taken aback.

“I thought at the [Keeneland September] sale that Echo Zulu looked a really fast filly,” he reflects. “So I'd been asking Steve [Asmussen] all winter about her and it didn't surprise me that she's fast. And there were a couple of colts I thought looked quick, too. But in the main I truly thought they would be fall horses. It's been amazing, the speed and brilliance that's coming through.

“I think you can breed almost any kind of mare to Gun Runner, physically and genotypically, but they are certainly exceeding our expectations for speed. There's no doubt he was really fast himself, and showed a lot of speed, but he did develop later. So hopefully the best is still to come.”

Gun Runner did win his first two juvenile starts, as well as the two big Fair Grounds trials in the spring before making the Derby podium behind Nyquist. But it was only in maturity that he hit his big numbers, rounding off with that streak of five Grade I wins by an aggregate 27 1/2 lengths.

If that represented a very wholesome template, in terms of soundness and constitution, then his appeal at stud was further underpinned by an aristocratic family cultivated by the late Edward P. Evans. Most auspiciously, Gun Runner's Grade II-winning dam Quiet Giant (Giant's Causeway) is a half-sister to Saint Liam (Saint Ballado)–whose own Horse of the Year campaign, remember, came as a 5-year-old; and who, though tragically confined to a single crop, famously produced Havre de Grace to win the same laurels at four.

Gun Runner's whole pedigree is seamed with Classic influences, most obviously Fappiano who is responsible not only for Candy Ride's grandsire Cryptoclearance, but also for the sire of Quiet Dance (Quiet American), the dam of Quiet Giant and Saint Liam. Going farther back, Gun Runner's sixth dam is Hall of Famer Gallorette, who spread her 72 starts across five campaigns. (Gallorette shared a grandam, the great matriarch Flambette, with two Kentucky Derby winners in five years, Omaha {1935} and Johnstown {1939}.)

With such august foundations, it can only be auspicious that Gun Runner is coming up with all these sound-the-alarm juveniles. His co-owners at Winchell Thoroughbreds have already been associated with a breed-shaping sire in Tapit, whose homebred daughter Just Wicked won the Adirondack in 2015. And Just Wicked is now the dam of Wicked Halo, who brought things full circle when crowning their trainer's record-breaking weekend.

Wicked Halo captured Sunday's Adirondack | Sarah Andrew

Asmussen is unsurprisingly “all in” on a stallion he brought to stardom after Winchell Thoroughbreds did a deal with Three Chimneys that kept him out of the ring as a 2-year-old. (Three Chimneys gained their own interest in Gun Runner as a yearling as part of a partnership with Besilu Stables, who had been such heavy investors in the Evans dispersal.) Asmussen acclaims his Gun Runners as a trainer's dream, saying that all they do is work, eat and grow. And, most important testimony of all: “Every single one of them I have will be better when they're older.”

There are certainly nuggets of speed in Gun Runner's genetic make-up: Quiet Dance was out of a half-sister to a top-class juvenile filly in Europe, Minstrella (who had striking m.p.h. for a daughter of an Epsom Derby winner in The Minstrel), while Candy Ride has shown himself capable of getting a top-class dasher like Vekoma. But Gun Runner, who was always considered an exceptional son of his sire in terms of length and scope, will surely help his own stock through a second turn besides imparting the natural speed and athleticism we associate with Candy Ride.

Not that Pappacap would seem likely to need too much help stretching out at three, even though he's out of a Scat Daddy mare. Homebred by Rustlewood Farm, the Best Pal winner is out of Pappascat, a turf runner who won a sprint maiden on debut at two but who peaked (graded stakes-placed over nine furlongs) in the fall of her third campaign. Pappacap had whirred through his fractions when making all on debut in Florida but is bred to last, in every sense: his next two dams, unusually enough, are both by sons of that sturdy influence Roberto (namely Red Ransom and Dynaformer); and they are followed by a Pleasant Colony mare. Those are remarkably deep foundations for a horse so precocious that Cauthen remembers hearing about him back at the OBS March Sale.

Pappacap stayed undefeated in Saturday's Best Pal | Benoit

“Francis Vanlangendonck had just come back from Mark Casse's farm and he was raving about the horse,” he says. “So even then Mark was very aware of his brilliance. But you have to think these Gun Runners are just going to get better and better as they go along. Quite a few trainers I know have been holding onto them for late summer and fall, because they anticipated they would need the time. But they're all showing a lot, and will be running soon.”

Wicked Halo, for her part, has been serving up speed all the way–rather too much of it in the Debutante S. on her second start, admittedly, but it was only a couple of panting closers who were cutting into her lead Sunday after she had seen off competition in 21.55 and 44.80. Connections will now be hoping that she progresses better than did her dam after winning the same race. We don't know how far Just Wicked might have stretched her speed but her full-sister's success in the GII Gazelle S., round a second turn, implies that Tapit had contributed some stretch, bearing in mind that their dam was a stakes-winning sprinter.

So if these two breakthrough graded stakes winners are anything to go by, Gun Runner looks as though he may be able to complement some pretty diverse genetic backgrounds. And that could just be the beginning, in terms of flexibility, as a son of Candy Ride out of a Giant's Causeway mare–two stallions that rose to fame on home turf before immediately proving their elite quality on dirt in the U.S.

Steve Asmussen with Gun Runner in his career finale | Horsephotos

Candy Ride is now 22 but with competition among his sons ever stronger, his legacy already appears secure. As such Gun Runner has an awfully long way to go, if he is to emerge as the principal heir–but the early signs suggest that he may offer both the sales ring “gun,” for making a commercial noise, and the “run” sought by those actually interested in breeding a racehorse. And that, in the end, would be a very fitting memorial to Ned Evans, a breeder wise enough to understand that nothing creates commercial value better than track performance.

“One of the great things we're seeing so far is that they're competitors,” Cauthen says. “Some of them didn't show that much in their individual breezes but then you put them up with another horse, they just light up; the switch turns on. Steve has commented on that quite a bit, and other trainers as well. You love those stallions that throw that grit, that fight.

“That was one of the early things people saw in Distorted Humor. I've been lucky enough to have been around some special stallions at the beginning of their careers and that's always the dream, for every young sire: that he can become one of those special ones that just push through brilliance. Gun Runner obviously has a long way to go but we couldn't be more pleased by the way that he has started. Now we just have to hope that he can keep going through the rest of the year and build from there.

“It's been a great team with the Winchells from the beginning: first racing the horse in partnership, and now obviously they've pulled their weight for him with a bunch of good mares. Collaboration has always been a mainstay for Three Chimneys. And working not only with [the] Winchells, but with all the breeders who have supported Gun Runner the last four years, we really hope that they're going to be rewarded.”

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