11/01/2017 2:40PM

Breeders' Cup Classic: Gun Runner at his apex for rematch with Arrogate

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Barbara D. Livingston
In Saturday's Breeders' Cup Classic, Gun Runner (above) will try to avenge a loss to Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup.

DEL MAR, Calif. – A lot can happen in seven months. From the time Arrogate and Gun Runner last met in March in the Dubai World Cup until they face another anew on Saturday in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar, an entire baseball season was played, champions were crowned in hockey and basketball, and Roger Federer won a record eighth title at Wimbledon.

Arrogate overcame a horrible start to beat Gun Runner in the World Cup, but since then, he has lost both his starts, while Gun Runner has never been better, winning three straight Grade 1 races.

What appeared clear on March 25 – that Arrogate is superior to Gun Runner – is no longer a certainty.

But the Classic will be run at 1 1/4 miles, a distance at which Gun Runner is winless in three tries. It is also the distance at which the rapidly improving 3-year-old West Coast won the Travers Stakes in August. And this year’s Breeders’ Cup will be run at Del Mar, where Arrogate is 1 for 3 and Gun Runner and West Coast have never raced, but where Collected won the ultimate dress rehearsal for the Classic, Del Mar’s 1 1/4-mile Pacific Classic.

Arrogate, Collected, Gun Runner, and West Coast are the core of the Classic, the last of 13 Breeders’ Cup races to be run Friday and Saturday at Del Mar, which is playing host to the Breeders’ Cup for the first time. This is one of the best fields in the 34-year history of the race, with the top four all in line to claim Horse of the Year with a victory.

“It’s gonna be a tough [freaking] Classic,” said Arrogate’s trainer, Bob Baffert. “You’ve got to show up with your ‘A’ game.”

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Baffert is going for his fourth straight win in the Classic, having captured it in preceding years with Bayern, American Pharoah, and Arrogate, who is seeking to join Tiznow as two-time winners of the Classic. Baffert also trains Collected, West Coast, and Mubtaahij, giving him four of the 11 runners. This is the first time a trainer has had more than three horses in the Classic.

But does Baffert have the right horse?

Based on recent form, Gun Runner is the morning-line favorite of both Del Mar’s Russell Hudak and Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form’s national handicapper. Since finishing second in Dubai, he has scored three runaway victories while earning Beyer Speed Figures of 110, 112, and, most recently, a career-best 115. He is a far superior animal to the one who finished second in last year’s Dirt Mile at Santa Anita.

“He’s stronger, recovers quicker from his races, recovers quicker from his works,” said Steve Asmussen, who trains Gun Runner. “He trains like a machine. He’s stronger. He’s a better horse at 4 than he was at 3.

“This is the stage to prove where Gun Runner is at.”

Arrogate was ranked the best horse in the world when he powered through the Travers, Breeders’ Cup Classic, Pegasus World Cup, and Dubai World Cup in succession. Baffert holds Arrogate in high regard. After a recent work at Santa Anita, he marveled, “I’ve never seen a horse jump like him.”

Yet, like Federer at the beginning of the year, questions remain over whether Arrogate is as effective now as in his prime. And there is the not-insignificant matter of Del Mar, where Arrogate clearly did not perform to his best this summer. Baffert insists the main track was not to blame for his losses.

“I’m not going to use that as an excuse for Arrogate,” said Baffert, who believes running Arrogate in the San Diego, instead of awaiting the Pacific Classic, threw preparation off kilter.

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Still, Baffert said Del Mar is “a gimmicky racetrack.”

“It can be a tricky track,” he said. “Some horses handle it.”

Collected is one of them. He thrived here during the summer and ran to his training.

“He loves that place,” Baffert said. “He’s a hardy little horse, like Gun Runner.”

West Coast enters this race with a five-race win streak and does not appear to have yet reached his ceiling.

“He’s a true mile-and-a-quarter horse,” Baffert said.

Baffert shipped his horses here from Santa Anita on Tuesday, as though the Breeders’ Cup was out of state, not down Interstate 5.

“I’m treating it like shipping in,” he said. “Instead of getting on a plane, they’re getting on a van.”

The field also includes Travers runner-up Gunnevera and a pair of Aidan O’Brien-trained runners – Churchill and War Decree – racing on dirt for the first time.

Churchill won the Irish 2000 Guineas in May but is winless in four starts since. He most recently was a close third in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot on soft turf. O’Brien’s primary rider, Ryan Moore, chose him over War Decree.

“We’ve always thought the world of Churchill,” O’Brien said. “He had a good race at Ascot. He’s trained well.”

War Decree won a Group 3 race on an all-weather surface in Ireland in his last start.

“He won nicely,” O’Brien said. “It was a lower-grade race, obviously.”

Pavel, War Story, and Win the Space are the race’s longshots.

– additional reporting by Steve Andersen