Gun Runner surged to the lead in upper stretch and posted a half-length victory in Saturday’s $400,000 Risen Star (G2) at Fair Grounds, stamping himself as a legitimate Kentucky Derby (G1) contender. The Candy Ride colt was making his 2016 debut for trainer Steve Asmussen and Florent Geroux had the mount.
The Risen Star was the first of the “Championship Season” portion of the Road to the Kentucky Derby series and Gun Runner jumped to the top of the leaderboard with the 50-point prize, increasing his total to 51.
Owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm, Gun Runner was making his first appearance since a fourth in his stakes debut, the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) at Churchill Downs on November 28.
Airoforce, an accomplished turf performer in his first three starts, captured the Kentucky Jockey Club over a sloppy track but did not fare well while trying a fast track for the first time in the Risen Star, checking in a well-beaten 10th as the 8-5 favorite. Kentucky Jockey Club runner-up Mor Spirit posted wins in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) and Robert B. Lewis (G3) in his next two starts and third-placer Mo Tom came back to capture the January 16 Lecomte (G3) at Fair Grounds and a rallying third in the Risen Star.
Gun Runner is the latest star to emerge from the key race and is expected to return for the $1 million TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby (G2) at Fair Grounds on March 26.
“He’s a very nice horse,” Geroux said afterward. “I’ve really liked him since the first time I was on his back a few weeks ago working in the morning. He’s super athletic. I was very confident.”
Gun Runner broke alertly and settled into a good stalking position in fifth as Candy My Boy sped forward to show the way, establishing an opening quarter-mile in :22.95 on a clear lead. Gun Runner continued to bide his time in fourth, 4 ½ lengths back of the pacesetter, after a half-mile in :46.38 and began to advance entering the far turn.
Candy My Boy continued to show the way through three-quarters in 1:11.33, but Gun Runner had rallied into second and was gaining on the leader. Gun Runner collared the pacesetter at the quarter-pole and easily forged ahead, reaching the mile mark in 1:37.05 with a one-length lead.
Gun Runner began to tire a little following the 84-day layoff but was never seriously threatened in the latter stages, completing 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.94. He was off as the 5-1 third choice among 11 runners.
Forevamo, a 40-1 outsider, offered a fine closing kick for second, finishing a length better than the late-running Mo Tom. Mo Tom was forced to check leaving the far turn, sustaining a cut to a leg as he was gashed, and ran well for third at 5-2 considering the trouble.
Candy My Boy, Zapperin, In Equality, Tom’s Ready, Its All Relevant, Bistraya, Airoforce and Uncle Walter completed the order. Dolphus and Laoban were both scratched.
“We’re very lucky to have him,” Asmussen said. “I thought Florent gave him a beautiful trip with how the track was playing. He’s shown talent the whole time and it’s definitely good to see him in the winner’s circle in a race like this.”
Asmussen and Geroux also teamed to win the Duncan F. Kenner and a maiden special weight on the undercard, and Geroux added the Fair Grounds H. (G3) aboard the Brad Cox-trained Chocolate Ride.
“I wanted to make sure I saved some ground,” Geroux said of his trip. “It looked like the track was playing a little bit more inside-favoring. I kept him down there until I asked him to go and he ran a great race.”
Bred in Kentucky by Besilu Stables, Gun Runner is out of the Grade 2-winning Quiet Giant, a daughter of Giant’s Causeway who counts 2005 Horse of the Year Saint Liam as a half-brother.
Gun Runner captured his first two starts, capturing a one-mile maiden special weight at Churchill Downs on September 11 and a 1 1/16-mile entry-level allowance at Keeneland on October 17, before making his stakes bow in the aforementioned Kentucky Jockey Club. He moved too soon in the latter, striking the front leaving the far turn before weakening to fourth, but made amends for the lone setback on Saturday.
The chestnut has now earned $306,920.
Co-owner Ron Winchell was asked about the Kentucky Derby:
“That’s the dream, right – the Kentucky Derby. He’s been highly anticipated and a quality horse.”
First photo courtesy of Lou Hodges Jr./Hodges Photography
Second photo courtesy of Amanda Hodges Weir/Hodges Photography