SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- With a little more than a half-mile to run in Saturday's Grade 1 Whitney Stakes at Saratoga, Florent Geroux allowed heavily favored Gun Runner to take over the lead from Cautious Giant, entered in the race as a rabbit to hassle Gun Runner.
At that point, Julie Asmussen turned to her husband Steve, the trainer of Gun Runner, and said "Is that okay?"
Asmussen answered in the affirmative.
"I thought to myself 'Florent must love where he is because the last thing he heard was rabbit wasn't on his diet,'" Asmussen said. "For him to have confidence to take over there when an obvious rabbit is in the race p I think that's a testament to Florent's belief in Gun Runner."
There can't be anybody remaining who don't believe in Gun Runner as, after taking the lead at the 4 1/2-furlong marker, he went on to dominate the $1.2 million Whitney Stakes by 5 1/4 lengths, his second straight Grade 1 victory since losing to Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup.
Keen Ice, who stumbled badly at the start, rallied from last to get second by 1 1/4 lengths over Breaking Lucky. It was seven lengths back to War Story in fourth. He was followed, in order, by Discreet Lover, Tu Brutus and Cautious Giant.
"Gun Runner has spoiled us with his ability and his consistency to this point," Asmussen said. "For him to win a race the quality of the Whitney at Saratoga under the pressures that Saratoga brings only elevates his status."
To make the win more impressive, Gun Runner ran the last half-mile of the Whitney with a shoe in his tail. A review of the head-on replay shows one of Cautious Giant's shoes pop up in the air and somehow land in the tail of Gun Runner.
The $650,000 first-place purse pushed Gun Runner's lifetime earnings to $5,288,500. It also keeps him in the mix for Horse of the Year with an anticipated showdown with Dubai World Cup winner Arrogate hopefully taking place in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Del Mar on Nov. 4.
Asmussen acknowledged that Arrogate defeated Gun Runner in both last year's Travers here and the Dubai World Cup in March. "Hopefully, the stars will align and we'll have another opportunity at the end of the year," Asmussen said.
The stars hadn't aligned for Asmussen at this meet, having gone 0 for 23 since the meet opened July 21 before the Whitney.
Then he watched some peculiar things happen in racing. Arrogate got beat in the San Diego Handicap at odds of 1-9. Kentucky Derby Always Dreaming and Preakness winner Cloud Computing got beat in the Jim Dandy, and Drefong, the sprint champion, lost his rider at the start of the Bing Crosby Stakes last week at Del Mar.
In the Whitney, a rival owner, Ron Paolucci, put in Cautious Giant to make sure Gun Runner didn't get things his own way on the lead. Paolucci was trying to set things up for his stablemate War Story.
Paco Lopez did send Cautious Giant to the lead through an opening quarter in 23.89 seconds. Gun Runner broke very sharp but Geroux placed him second off that one's flank. Lopez inexplicably tried to slow the pace down in the second quarter -- the half-mile fraction was 48.31 seconds. Geroux, opting not to play around, let Gun Runner go to the lead shortly thereafter.
"I took over by the five-eighths pole and from there it was pretty much over," Geroux said. "My horse was pretty much on cruise control all the way around there. I just gave him a little slap at the eighth pole to make sure I kept him focused, but there was no need for that."
Gun Runner, a son of Candy Ride owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm, covered the 1 1/8 miles in 1:47.71 and returned $3.20 as the 1-2 favorite.
"I thought he ran a dynamite race in a very good time," Asmussen said.
The Whitney was a "Win and You're In" race for the Breeders' Cup Classic. But Gun Runner had already earned his fees-paid berth winning the Stephen Foster.
While the year-end goal is the Classic, Asmussen said he may use the Grade 1, $750,000 Woodward here on Sept. 2 as Gun Runner's final prep. Asmussen said the nine weeks between the Woodward and the Classic are ideal.
"I think this [win] makes that very possible," Asmussen said. "I love the mile and an eighth, two turns, the rhythm that he's in. We already know how well he runs fresh."
At a distance that is not his best, Keen Ice did well to finish second after stumbling badly at the start.
"I thought he ran his race," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "He closed well, was coming at the end. We were a little concerned a mile and an eighth was a little shorter than his best. Hats off to the winner."