Gun Runner romps in Stephen Foster Handicap

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Gun Runner further established himself as the next-best horse this side of Arrogate with a thoroughly dominating performance Saturday night in the 36th running of the Grade 1, $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs.

"Nice horse, huh?" said Steve Asmussen, who trains Gun Runner for Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm. "He's pretty fast."

Always prominent after breaking from post 3 in a field of eight older horses, Gun Runner and jockey Florent Geroux went unchallenged on the lead -- a development that was somewhat surprising, given the presence of the speedy Bird Song to his inside.

But Bird Song did not break particularly well and was soon bottled into traffic, leaving Geroux to do as he pleased through the opening six furlongs of the 1 1/8-mile Foster, going in splits of 23.59, 47.23, and 1:10.69. Midway through the far turn, Stanford -- in closest pursuit from early on -- moved up to challenge from the outside under John Velazquez.

"I thought I might've had him there for a second," Velazquez said.

Not a chance. Gun Runner, given his cue by Geroux, steadily edged away, winning by a race-record seven lengths over Honorable Duty and finishing in 1:47.56 over a fast track. He returned $3 as the heavy favorite.

"I was loaded the entire trip around there," Geroux said. "He was doing everything so easily. I was a bit surprised to find myself on a lone lead but I wasn't complaining. What a horse."

The winning time was nearly 2 1/2 seconds faster than what Forever Unbridled, a multiple Grade 1 winner, took in winning the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis (1:49.94) an hour earlier. His margin surpassed that of Street Cry, who won the 2002 Foster by 6 1/2 lengths.

"He's just a tremendous horse," Asmussen said.

The Foster is a Win and You're In event toward the Nov. 4 Breeders' Cup Classic at Del Mar. Asmussen said Gun Runner would ship in due course to Saratoga, probably with an eye toward the Aug. 5 Whitney, all the while working backward from the BC Classic, in which a rematch with Arrogate is entirely possible.

Arrogate has been widely acclaimed as the world's top racehorse since winning the 2016 BC Classic at Santa Anita. He won the March 25 Dubai World Cup by 2 1/4 lengths over the pace-setting Gun Runner.

"This horse is truly unbelievable," Geroux said. "He's one of the best horses I've ever ridden and to put forward this type of effort after running in Dubai is so impressive."

Asmussen won the 2008 Dubai World Cup with Curlin, who then easily won the Foster in his next start.

"You always worry about how they'll come back from that trip," he said. "But the way he was working and acting, we were hoping he'd turn in the kind of performance he did tonight."

Bred in Kentucky by Besilu Stables, Gun Runner, a 4-year-old colt by Candy Ride, now has won eight of 15 starts. He earned $300,700, bringing his career total to $4,638,500. He became the fifth horse to win the Foster the year after winning the Clark Handicap here in the fall, following Hopeful Word (1985-86), No Marker (1989-90), Saint Liam (2004-05), and Blame (2009-10).

Honorable Duty, ridden by Javier Castellano, had a good trip in pursuit of Gun Runner and Stanford but was "second best today," Castellano said.

"Super," said Brendan Walsh, trainer of Honorable Duty. "Can't be disappointed. He ran great. Looks like he probably stepped up again."

Honorable Duty finished 1 1/4 lengths before Breaking Lucky, who was followed in order by Hawaakom, Stanford, Texas Chrome, Mo Tom, and Bird Song.

The $2 exacta (3-4) paid $10.60, the $1 trifecta (3-4-2) returned $26.20, and the 10-cent superfecta (3-4-2-6) was worth $13.54.

Track attendance on a hot late-spring night was 20,669.