07/23/2005 12:00AM

Gun Salute by a nose

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Benoit & Associates
Gun Salute inches past Purim (rail) to take Saturday's Grade 2 American Derby by a nose at Arlington Park.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Purim is a big horse all over. His head is no exception. Gun Salute seemed to have Purim measured in the stretch of the on Saturday at Arlington, rallying up to Purim's flank at the sixteenth pole and gradually edging toward the lead. But one major body part still stood in the way.

"How big is that horse's head, anyway?" asked Kenny McCarthy, assistant to Gun Salute's trainer, Bill Mott. "I didn't think we were ever going to get by."

But it was Gun Salute who got his head down, beating Purim by a nose in the Grade 2, $250,000 American Derby. The win was the biggest of Gun Salute's career, and quite possible landed him a slot in the Grade 1 Secretariat three weeks from now.

"I'd never want to put words in Bill's mouth, but that certainly would be at the forefront of his considerations, the way the horse ran today," McCarthy said.

Gun Salute, a Military colt bred and owned by Brant Larue, won twice at 2, but took his biggest step forward this year when he began racing in blinkers.

"He might have been lacking a little bit of focus," McCarthy said. "I know Bill expected him to run huge today."

Gun Salute rated in midpack for jockey Cornelio Velasquez as longshot General Jumbo shot out to a huge early lead, setting quick fractions of 23.04 seconds for a quarter, 47.05 for a half, and 1:11.56 for three-quarters before giving way to Purim, the even-money favorite.

Purim had tracked in second, but as General Jumbo forced the pace into the first turn, Purim briefly wanted to run after him, jockey Mark Guidry said.

"He settled down on the backstretch, but he only got beat this much, so that had to cost him," Guidry said.

Purim took over at the top of the stretch and dug in gamely as Gun Salute closed in. In the end, even his ample head wasn't large enough to hold off the winner, who paid $9.40 to win, running 1 3/16 miles on "good" turf in 1:55.31.

Exceptional Ride closed for third, followed by Cosmic Kris, General Jumbo, Merger, Gold Minister, and Earths Vain Shadow.