11/05/2017 7:30PM

Hovdey: 'Vive le Gun Runner' tells story of Breeders' Cup Classic

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Emily Shields
Gun Runner, with Florent Geroux up, wins the Breeders' Cup Classic at Del Mar on Saturday.

Steve Asmussen sat splayed across most of a bench outside the Del Mar receiving barn, where Gun Runner, Arrogate, and their nine rivals circled in anticipation of the final call for the 34th running of the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Asmussen’s tan suit, properly relaxed from a long day of wear, was complemented by a blue shirt the color of the coastal sky still clinging to another hour of daylight. His hair, as usual, had gone rogue, but he seemed otherwise serene in the face of the challenge ahead.

“I suppose I could get nervous,” said Asmussen, the man in Gun Runner’s corner. “But I’m not sure it would do any good.”

A busybody sitting nearby waved the day’s official program in Asmussen’s direction, pointing to the back-page ad from Three Chimneys Farm dominated by the image of Gun Runner winning some big race somewhere. Three Chimneys owns Gun Runner in partnership with Winchell Thoroughbreds.

“Nice looking horse,” deadpanned Asmussen. “Now the goal is to get him on the cover.”

Start the presses.

Gun Runner’s conclusive, thoroughly professional victory in the $6 million Classic was a tribute to all the Thoroughbreds out there who go about their business in a manner that is consistently reliable, rather than occasionally spectacular. From age 2 to 3 to 4, the chestnut son of Candy Ride was good, better and then the best in the land this year, with five wins in five starts at North American tracks from coast to coast.

His lone loss last March in the Dubai World Cup – to an inspired performance by Arrogate – seemed to linger like the taste of a bad meal at a good restaurant. The memory needed to be exorcised, as cleanly as possible, head-to-head against defending Classic champ Arrogate on the last and greatest stage of the season.

Before that could take place, however, a dozen Breeders’ Cup races required running and their results quickly digested. Friday’s program of four Cup races began with a bang as several of the fillies circling the walking ring before the Juvenile Fillies Turf were spooked at the sound of an unseen soprano hitting the big notes at the end of the national anthem. The paddock crowd, forgetting where they were, cheered in patriotic appreciation while the fillies wheeled and rolled their eyes. Then an unperturbed Rushing Fall went out and beat Best Performance by three-quarters of a length under Javier Castellano for trainer Chad Brown.

That was it for Javier, who was able to add only a second and three thirds in his remaining Breeders’ Cup rides. Castellano won the Bill Shoemaker Award anyway, as top jockey of the event, despite the fact that John Velazquez won two of the most prestigious Breeders’ Cup races – the Distaff and the Mile – and added a third-place finish in the Dirt Mile behind Flavien Prat and Battle of Midway. Apparently, the point system valued hitting the board over winning the race. Or maybe Johhny V. got docked for landing the mount on Distaff winner Forever Unbridled when Joel Rosario originally had the assignment.

No one seemed satisfied with the explanation owner Charles Fipke provided for his 11th-hour rider switch (a careful parsing of his words boiled down to: “because I own the horse”). In any event, Forever Unbridled ran to her looks, which in large part were provided by her groom, Enrique Mata, who scored a cool $500 for having the Best Turned Out runner in the race. His secret?

“I brush,” Mata said. “I brush a lot.”

By order of the stewards, Rosario got a full winner’s cut for just sitting in the room and watching Forever Unbridled do her thing. That’s okay, because the following afternoon the rider earned his pay in the Turf Sprint aboard the 30-to-1 Stormy Liberal, when they beat Richard’s Boy and Prat by a head and favored Lady Aurelia by a lot more.

As it turned out, Gary Hartunian also had to pay two jockeys. But it was a good thing. He owns both Stormy Liberal and Richard’s Boy, a salty pair of 5-year-old geldings who between them this season won six minor sprint stakes for trainer Peter Miller before taking the field in the Breeders’ Cup.

Miller, a frequent critic of the Del Mar main track, came right back three races later to win the Sprint and a likely Eclipse Award with Roy H, another 5-year-old gelding who races for Hartunian and partner David Bernsen. Kent Desormeaux was aboard, and made it look easy, beating Parx rocket Imperial Hint by a length.

“This is getting old,” cracked Miller as he entered the interview room as the first trainer of 2017 to win two BC events.

It wasn’t really, but it did not take long for Chad Brown to catch Miller with a second win when the maiden Good Magic took the Juvenile by 4 1/4 lengths, the largest margin of the two-day event.

Besides local hero Miller, there were two other trainers winning their first Breeders’ Cup races, familiar names who have paid more than their share of dues. Ralph Nicks took the Juvenile Fillies with Caledonia Road at 17-1, while John Kimmel rattled the Filly and Mare Sprint with Bar of Gold at 66-1.  Jockeys Mickael Barzalona and William Buick, both wearing Godolphin blue, were also first-time winners.

In what can only be a good trend, there were nine previous Breeders’ Cup race winners spread across the 13 races this year. Unfortunately for their backers, only one hit the board.

Highland Reel, defending champ in the $4 million Turf, finished third this time around in one of those cat-and-mouse, 1 1/2-mile contests that went down to the final strides. Beach Patrol and Rosario tracked Oscar Performance and Irad Ortiz on the lead, with Ryan Moore and Highland Reel never far behind. As they turned for home, it appeared as if Rosario had the jump on Moore, but then Mikael Barzalona produced the exotically marked Talismanic from deep cover and shot past the leaders with one of those annoyingly effective European bursts.

It was just enough. Both Beach Patrol and Highland Reel came back for more to make it close at the line. Talismanic, who had spent most of the walking ring preliminaries displaying his ample colthood, won by half a length for Godolphin and the legendary Andre Fabre.

As Talismanic received his garland of Breeders’ Cup flowers, Joe Harper stood nearby reading his cellphone and getting every bit as excited – in a more classy, Del Mar CEO kind of way – by the handle numbers to that point.

“Would you believe we’re $6 million ahead of Santa Anita’s pace a year ago,” Harper said.

In the end, the Del Mar Breeders’ Cup rang up $166 million in common pool betting for the two days, second only to the $173.8 million recorded by Churchill Downs in 2010, when Zenyatta’s final race inspired widespread participation.

“It’s a great venue for the event,” said Steve Asmussen as Gun Runner headed for the paddock. “My boys and I walked the whole grandstand earlier today. It’s a lot bigger than you think it is.”

Neither is it the grandstand Asmussen knew as a teenage jockey, in the early 1980’s.

“I rode out here with the bug,” Asmussen said. “I think I had two more wins as a jockey than I do as a trainer – two to zero.”

Make that two-to-one now, thanks to Gun Runner and his constant companion, Florent Geroux. Going into the race, Asmussen predicted not too many riders would be wanting the lead, based on the results of main track events that seemed exceedingly harsh on frontrunners of any quality. And yet there was Geroux, on the engine alongside Pacific Classic winner Collected, turning a 22.50 opening quarter down the straight into a 46.31 half and a 1:10.50 for three-quarters, splits that effectively strung out the field and left the others – Arrogate included – scrambling to catch up.

“I didn’t want to move too soon, because I saw how much horse he had,” said Martin Garcia, rider of Collected, as he weighed out amid the post-race chaos. “When I asked my horse, he gave it to me. It was just not enough to go with the winner.”

Except for that night in Dubai, no horse had enough to go with Gun Runner all year. Up in the stands, as the final furlong unfolded and Collected was held safe, Asmussen cut loose some primal screaming in blessed release of the frustration brewing over the last seven months, when he was kept being told he had the second-best horse in the land and knew in his heart he had the best.

“Come on, Red! Come on, Red! Come on, Red!” he belted above the crowd, followed by the kind of “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” saved for only the sweetest, most vindicating triumphs.

Then there was Alejandro Galindo, a young swing valet in the Del Mar room who awoke that morning not knowing that he would land duty with Geroux for the day. Suddenly part of the game’s greatest show, Galindo beamed as he approached the scales, ready to take his rider’s tack.

“Felicidades!” said Galindo, as clerk Charlie McCaul checked Geroux’s weight.

“Yes, vive la France!” McCaul chimed in.

Geroux had his choice, and went with his native tongue.

“Vive la France,” replied the rider. But what he really meant was, “Vive le Gun Runner.”