Catching My Eye: How the Gun Runner Pace Unfolded

December 26th, 2023

In order to get a clear handle on what happened in the Gun Runner last Saturday at Fair Grounds, we need to keep in mind the old adage: it's not how fast they run but how they run fast

There were three horses who ran sub :23 second quarters. When the front two dueled ahead by five lengths out of the first turn, those same three horses lost the race playing catch-up down the backstretch. The same three horses had trouble out of the gates.

Listed in reverse order of finish, here’s my deep dive into the 2023 Gun Runner, a race which I believe will see at least three go forward to the Kentucky Derby 150 starting gates.

Next Level, the Vino Rosso colt, who broke his maiden when setting a slow pace last out, came back to be asked hard into the first turn, outbidding the outer foe Track Phantom for the lead. He proceeded to be hounded, ripping through the opening fraction in :23.61 and quicking through the next in :23.32. He waved the white towel and finished last, but I don’t think the road stops here. Given Desormeaux’s confidence that this horse has as much talent as any of his recent Derby hopefuls, a more even ride for a horse who doesn’t need the lead could make a lot of difference.

Neat ran the most even race of all, but simply could not cut the mustard against these. Atras was on the fence about running in here, being unsure if he wanted to mess with a surface change, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him run his race again once back on turf. 

Risk It was up against it from the word go. After taking a blow and losing his lane out of the gates, he was a touch rank going :22 and 3 through the second call. Once he did get into stalking position, Rosario had him behind the front-runner on the rail, and as Next Level tired, Risk It lost one length in the far turn, never able to be in position to menace through the stretch. I think the Gun Runner colt wants to be forward and on the outside of foes. If he is going to be a serious horse, he’ll have to overcome a variety of positions, but in the meanwhile, he could be dangerous if given a perfect spy trip. 

Footprint is the second colt to simply go too fast through the second call. A stumble out of the gates and a sluggish opening :25.51 was followed up by a sprinter’s :22.96. He ran well across the final two furlongs but appeared to be a touch below the top competition. A more even effort and being in touch with the contenders could produce a better result.

Nash has excuses for his third-place finish. Geroux had a hold and rated the 1-2 favorite, even with breaking awkwardly, part forward stumble and part on his heels. After going 24.58 through the first call, the devastating :22.88 second quarter saw the son of Medaglia d’Oro shrink Track Phantom’s advantage to less than 3. He was positioned perfectly spying to that one’s outside waiting for the perfect time to make his run out of the turn. But Snead’s sweeping move to engage Nash split his attention from running down Track Phantom to fighting off a challenger--something he did not have to do in his winning race. 

Let’s look at Nash’s speed figures in his only three races. He earned an 87 Brisnet speed figure sprinting. A 97 stretching out when he was able to break his maiden on the lead and go unchallenged. In the Gun Runner, he got a 91. If you agree the main track at Churchill Downs had a front running bias on Nov. 12, then we can see a different story about a horse highly regarded by his barn. He didn’t regress, but ran a similar effort to his last, only this time he traveled unevenly and was tasked with switching his focus from running down the leader to fighting off a challenger, all while needing to switch leads.  

Snead was able to dole it out a touch better than the others. After going slowly with no trouble in :25.17, he did quicken through a :23.13 second quarter. Of the seven juveniles, the son of Nyquist trained by Brendan Walsh went :23.99 through the third fraction, fastest by a half-second. This move propelled him outside of Nash in the far turn. Once Snead grinded out the advantage, he set his sights on Track Phantom and came again to earn a 93 Brisnet Speed figure. Walsh seemed pleased to me as I walked with him after the race.

“That was a huge one,” Walsh said. “I’m delighted. You'd like to think he’d improve more because he’s that type of horse, and that the further he goes, the better he’ll get. He ran at (Track Phantom) again right at the end. I don't think the penny’s dropped with this horse still. He’s so laid back. When things really click with him, who knows (what he could do) if he keeps going the right way.”

I don’t want to take anything away from Track Phantom, who earned a 94 Brisnet Speed figure. He opened up the race pressuring Next Level going :23.63 and :23.32, and still kept two serious Derby contenders at bay through Fair Grounds’ long stretch. Asmussen knows the longer goal, and the conditioner produces progressive three-year-olds who unlock a little more with each race. 

However, Track Phantom did have three major factors go his way:

  1. The distance he built up early on tasked several others with using too much in that second quarter, 
  2. He got a breather around the far turn going :25.09, and
  3. Before his main challenger could muster a bid, Nash had to deal with Snead--a lot to ask of Cox’s freshman in his third race. 

All this being said, I believe we have three legitimate Derby contenders in the top three finishers of the 2023 Gun Runner. A few others have excuses and could offer value going forward.