11/25/2016 7:36PM

Gun Runner get his Grade 1 in Clark

Coady Photography
Gun Runner scampers to a clear, frontrunning victory in the Clark Handicap under Florent Geroux

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – All year long, Gun Runner had dodged no one when frequently competing against the very best 3-year-olds of 2016.

Late Friday afternoon, beneath the glare of the Churchill Downs lights, the hard-knocking colt finally got his first Grade 1 victory, leading wire to wire in the 142nd running of the $500,000 Clark Handicap, the annual marquee race of the fall meet.

“He deserved this,” said Steve Asmussen, who trains Gun Runner for the partnership of Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm. “All those Grade 1 winners he’d beaten, all the good races he’d run. I’m really happy for the horse and everyone involved.”

Sent away the 2-1 favorite as the only 3-year-old in a field of 10, Gun Runner made the early lead from post 1, with jockey Florent Geroux finding himself on a solo lead that seemed unlikely – at least on paper.

The expected frontrunner in the 1 1/8-mile race, Noble Bird, broke tardily under Julien Leparoux and quickly found himself in traffic, altering the complexion of the race as Gun Runner went unchallenged on opening fractions of 23.72 and 48 seconds.

“That horse [Noble Bird] doesn’t always break well, so was I surprised I was by myself? Yes and no,” said Geroux.

“He does that sometimes,” Leparoux said afterward with a shrug. “He doesn’t break for some reason.”

Into the far turn, Noble Bird had made his way up to the flank of Gun Runner as the closest pursuer, but with a quarter-mile remaining, Noble Bird was spent and Geroux was bracing for Breaking Lucky, a 46-1 shot who was in full flight and angling out to challenge. Geroux put Gun Runner to a drive, and soon it was all over, with the final margin being 2 3/4 lengths.

Breaking Lucky, ridden by Luis Contreras, finished another 3 1/2 lengths before Shaman Ghost. Hoppertunity was fourth, followed by Hawaakom, Effinex, Noble Bird, Are You Kidding Me, Prayer for Relief, and Mr. Z.

Gun Runner returned $6.20 after after finishing 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.50 over a fast track. Under handicap conditions, he carried 118 pounds, six fewer than Hoppertunity, the 2014 Clark winner as a 3-year-old.

Geroux, who rode Gun Runner in every one of the colt’s starts this year, was effusive in his praise.

“He ran in some very tough races all year,” he said. “Most of the other 3-year-olds are gone,” referring to the retirements of Nyquist, Exaggerator, and Creator. “He’s a pretty amazing horse.”

Gun Runner, a chestnut Kentucky-bred by Candy Ride, won the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby before finishing third at 10-1 behind Nyquist and Exaggerator in the Kentucky Derby. Withheld from the Preakness and Belmont, he then won the Matt Winn at Churchill in preparation for the Haskell, in which he turned in his only subpar finish of the year when fifth. He then was third in the Travers, second in the Pennsylvania Derby, and second in his first try against older horses in the Nov. 4 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Santa Anita.

Asmussen and David Fiske, racing manager for Winchell, were slow to commit to the Clark before the colt breezed an easy half-mile here Monday.

“We were aware of this race, aware of the prospects,” said Asmussen. “Being just three weeks after the Breeders’ Cup, we wanted to make sure.”

Gun Runner will travel in the next few days to Asmussen’s main winter base, the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. He will be pointed to a 4-year-old campaign, with the $12 million Pegasus World Cup on Jan. 28 at Gulfstream being a possibility, said Doug Cauthen, vice chairman for Three Chimneys.

Gun Runner finishes the year with four wins, two seconds, and two thirds from nine starts. The $294,500 winner’s share from the Clark lifts his earnings to $1,970,880 for 2016.

The $2 exacta (1-7) paid $152.40, the $1 trifecta (1-7-4) returned $492.10, and the 10-cent superfecta (1-7-4-9) was worth $215.26.

Racing resumes Saturday at Churchill with a 12-race Stars of Tomorrow card featuring twin 2-year-old stakes, the Kentucky Jockey Club and Golden Rod. The Single 6 jackpot (races 7-12) stands at $163,510 for Saturday.

The 21-day fall meet ends Sunday with a 12-race card and a mandatory dispersal of the Single 6 pool. Post time daily is 1 p.m. Eastern.