11/02/2017 12:10PM

Hovdey: Asmussen strapped for another Classic run


I saw Angel kissing Gun Runner.

Okay, as a title for a traditional Christmas song it leaves a lot to be desired. But as a casual glimpse at the bond between man and horse, which happens a lot around the racetrack, it told me all I needed to know about the favorite for the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday afternoon at Del Mar.

It wasn’t just a casual peck, either. Angel Garcia stood squarely in front of Gun Runner’s stall, two-deep on the Steve Asmussen shed row at Del Mar, and took the muzzle of the copper-plated chestnut in his hands. They touched noses, inhaling each other’s racetrack aroma, then Angel planted his kiss on Gun Runner’s upper lip, as if it was the most natural and necessary thing in the world to do.

“Angel does that a lot,” said Asmussen. “They kind of like each other.”

Garcia has been a steady companion of Gun Runner since the summer of 2016. He has worked the loose-limbed, athletic colt hither and yon, from Churchill Downs to Saratoga to Dubai and back, while Gun Runner has responded with an unbroken series of superb efforts. Because of this, there is no one more qualified to speak to the variable of the racing surface at Del Mar, over which Gun Runner has only worked once and galloped a few times since arriving last week from Santa Anita Park.

“If he can win at Saratoga, he can win anywhere,” Garcia said. “It was very deep.”

Saratoga was also at the mercy of Gun Runner, who cemented his status as the horse of the moment for the Breeders’ Cup Classic by winning the Whitney and the Woodward during the summer season.

Meanwhile, by stunning contrast at Del Mar, defending Classic champ Arrogate was losing the San Diego Handicap by 15 lengths, then came up a half-length short of stablemate Collected, at level weights, in the Pacific Classic. This was the same Arrogate who broke last in the Dubai World Cup, spotting Gun Runner a good dozen lengths in the first quarter-mile, before methodically working his way past every horse in the large field to win by 2 1/4 lengths. Gun Runner finished second.

“That was the best he’s run to date,” Asmussen said of his colt. “But he is faster now than he was then.”

Such a statement raises an eyebrow. Gun Runner’s three races since Dubai for Ron Winchell and Three Chimneys Farm have been powerful displays of a Thoroughbred in robust form. In addition to winning the Whitney by 5 1/4 lengths and the Woodward by 10 1/4, he cruised by seven lengths in the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs less than three months after returning from Dubai. What, no bounce?

“After the World Cup, we had to cool out inside because of the fireworks show,” Asmussen said. “They brought us back in the tunnel, on that rubber footing. You ever watch tired horses on that stuff? They can’t shuffle along, so they wobble, and there were some tired horses after that race. Him? He acted like he did coming over. He has a bounce-back like nothing you’ve seen.”

That was some consolation, although Asmussen’s disappointment in the World Cup result was palpable. And yet he could do nothing but admire the performance of Arrogate, who had defeated Gun Runner even more comprehensively in the Travers at Saratoga seven months earlier in their only other encounter.

“That was the greatest display of equine ability I’ve ever seen,” Asmussen said. “He ran down the stretch the second time that day like a 2-year-old at a training sale going an eighth of a mile.”

It has been 10 years since Asmussen won his first and so far only Breeders’ Cup Classic with the 3-year-old version of Curlin at a sloppy, rain-soaked Monmouth Park. You never forget your first, and few trainers have ever had a horse like Curlin. Asmussen was asked how often the Monmouth race comes to mind.

“I watched it again today,” Asmussen said. “Conditions couldn’t have been any worse. I was thankful we ran two in the Juvenile earlier in the day. They finished second and third, and cooled out well, so I got over any fear about the track.”

Curlin took it from there.

“He walked into the paddock that day like, ‘I got this,’ ” Asmussen said. “That’s what I love about the horses at this level. Gun Runner is full of himself, never not to be paid attention to. And you’re never surprising them. They know what’s happening, to the minute.”

One year later, Asmussen was at Santa Anita with Curlin for the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Classic. The event was being run for the first time on a main track surface other than dirt, something Asmussen could do nothing about.

“The most vivid memory I have of Curlin was the day after he got beat on the synthetic at Santa Anita,” the trainer recalled. “I didn’t sleep a wink that night, and I arrogantly wanted to apologize for putting him in that situation.

“So I couldn’t wait to go out there the next morning, and I bothered him before I should have,” Asmussen continued. “He was eventually out walking, and he looked right through me as if to say, ‘You stupid so-and-so. It was always me. It was never you.’

”The realization was comforting. He was letting me off the hook. My job was always to get out of the way.”

The decade since Curlin’s Classic win has given Asmussen and his family a wild, testing ride. No sooner had Curlin retired than he was presented with Rachel Alexandra in early 2009, a filly for the ages who followed Curlin’s two Horse of the Year campaigns with one of her own.

In 2014 the Asmussen stable was targeted by a PETA undercover video that made national headlines and triggered investigations of his operation in Kentucky and New York and his removal from the Hall of Fame ballot. After more than a year, the trainer was fined $10,000 by New York officials for the improper administration of a legal medication. PETA’s accusations of horse cruelty were held as unfounded.

“I think all the stuff that’s happened, we were put through it just to see how we’d react,” Asmussen said.

The challenges continued. In the fall of 2015, Julie Asmussen, Steve’s wife and mother of their three sons, was diagnosed with neck and throat cancer. Six months later, after a series of aggressive treatments, she scanned clean. About the same time, Asmussen was elected to the Hall of Fame.

“Knock on wood, she had a recent check and she’s 100 percent free, so we don’t have to go back for about three months,” Asmussen said.

And he is still not cutting his flowing Andrea Bocelli hair.

“It was kind of a pact we had, a symbol of her getting through it and her hair coming back,” Asmussen said. “Somebody was giving me a hard time. I said if you can make your wife happy by simply not cutting your hair, don’t you think you should?”

The Asmussen family will be out in force at Del Mar on Saturday, when Gun Runner has a chance to finally emerge from the considerable shadow of Arrogate.

“I’m glad he’s running,” Asmussen said. “If we’d have won the race without Arrogate, there’d always be a question. So this is the way it should be. Gun Runner has put some good races together, but none of it matters unless he wins on Saturday.”