An Unexpected Loaded Gun for the Classic?

Not so fast. If you remember my column a few days ago, you might deduce that the above headline does not pertain to Gun Runner, but the young gun, Gunnevera.

Now I am not going to be brazen enough to state that Gunnevera is going to beat Gun Runner or Arrogate, or even West Coast and Collected. But if you know me by now, you know there ain't gonna be no favorites picked in these parts.

But let's start by being more logical. The Classic is simple: Arrogate or Gun Runner? That is where everyone will be focusing their attention. In the two previous showdowns between these two antagonists, Arrogate proved to be the fastest gun alive.

But that was then. Things have changed dramatically since that memorable duel in the desert. But ever since Arrogate returned to American soil and fired the blank heard round the world in the San Diego Handicap, it has been Gun Runner who has strutted around like Gary Cooper at the end of High Noon.

Now Arrogate is back for one last showdown, trying to go out a winner and restore his once lofty reputation.

Frankly, I have no idea what to expect. Having spent many a summer morning at Saratoga with Gun Runner I have been impressed with everything I've seen. He is all class and knows he's special.

If I stick with Arrogate and if he gets beat by Gun Runner, I can live that. He's just not the same horse for whatever reason or he just doesn't handle Del Mar. But after heaping so much praise on Arrogate since last year's Travers, if I jump off the bandwagon now, especially when Bob Baffert believes he's back, and he does return to the old Arrogate and beats Gun Runner again and all the others, that would be tougher to live with; not only going against Arrogate, but Baffert, the man who always seems to find a way to win these kinds of big races. So I will stick with Arrogate and just hope we see the same horse who provided us with all those incredible thrills from last August to this March. If we do, we could see Arrogate put on a show. But I repeat, if we do. And remember, if Gun Runner does win it will be his first victory at 1 1/4 miles after three defeats, and he hasn't been facing horses of this quality. So just hope for clean trips and let the best horse wins. Racing wins either way because there is a good chance Gun Runner will be back next year, Yes, as a 5-year-old.

Baffert, of course, also has the luxury of having three other top-class horses in here - West Coast, Collected, and Mubtaahij, a sensational feat in itself. But there are other days ahead for them. Not so with Arrogate. West Coast does have the making of another Arrogate, their careers pretty similar to this point. If he beats these older horses, then we have ourselves another superstar to look forward to next year.

I also can't separate Arrogate and Gun Runner in the morning, as both have turned in sensational works. But I would have loved to seen Arrogate's last work come at Del Mar, a track on which many people still feel he is vulnerable. However, we don't even know what kind of track we're going to get.

There also has been talk about Arrogate drawing the rail, which at first glance would look like a negative. But perhaps breaking from the one-hole and having to be hustled out of the gate by Mike Smith will rid Arrogate of his two-race malaise, in which he seemed to have little interest in the proceedings early in the race, and only began to show any interest in the final sixteenth of the Pacific Classic. 

With all that said, I will turn my attention to Gunnevera, who, even if you feel is not in the same class as the older horses or even West Coast, still looks to be a solid horse to fill out the exactas and trifectas.

As I mentioned in my column last week, Gunnevera won the rich Delta Jackpot last year by coming from last in the field of 10 and blowing by the entire field on the turn and then drawing away to win by almost six lengths. Delta Downs is what is known as a bull ring track with an extremely short stretch of only 660 feet.

This past winter, Gunnevera ran an almost identical race, again rallying from last in the field of 10 in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream and again going from last to first and drawing off to a 5 3/4-length score. Gulfstream normally has a short stretch of 898 feet, but when running 1 1/16 miles they finish at a secondary finish line inside the sixteenth pole that is only 668 feet from the head of the stretch. In his previous start, the Holy Bull Stakes, also at t 1/16 miles, he was way too close to the pace couldn't deliver that big move on the turn, but still ran well to finish second to the brilliant Irish War Cry.

It is that natural speed he has that enables him to make such a rapid-fire move. We saw that speed at Saratoga last year when he captured the 6 1/2-furlong Saratoga Special, flying home the final eighth of a mile. You will find that horses that have that spectacular push-bottom move on the far turn often have excelled in sprints at some point in their career.

But when Gunnevera ran this spring in the Triple Crown races he failed to threaten when moved late in the slop at Churchill Downs, where the stretch 1,234-feet long and at Pimlico, where it is 1,152-feet long.

In the Travers Stakes, with new rider Edgard Zayas aboard, he again made that monster move on the far turn, going from 11th to second and looked like a winner turning for home. But with Saratoga's 1,144-foot stretch, he was unable to sustain his run and couldn't match strides with West Coast in the stretch, finishing second by 3 1/4 lengths, while finishing well clear of the third horse.

You would think a horse who comes from far back and who is bred to run all day would run better at bigger tracks with longer stretches. But because his move on the turn is so quick and explosive it makes it more difficult to sustain. 

That brings us to Del Mar. Although this track is nothing like Delta Downs and Gulfstream at 1 1/16 miles, its stretch is only 919 feet, which is 315 feet shorter than Churchill Downs, 233 feet shorter than Pimlico, and 225 feet shorter than Saratoga. So it is possible that Gunnevera could make his patented move and show that turn of foot and be able to sustain it longer on the shorter stretch.

So, let's say we have established that Gunnevera should like the tighter turns and shorter stretch at Del Mar. Is he fast enough to compete with the heavy hitters?

When he won the Fountain of Youth Stakes, he earned a negative-2 1/2 on the Thoro-Graph figures, by far his fastest number and fastest of any 3-year-old on the Derby trail. He regressed in the Florida Derby coming back in four weeks and was taken too far back and moved too late and too wide to threaten Always Dreaming, who scorched that race in 1:47 2/5. 

It was the same in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. He was never able to make that electrifying move on the turn and may have gotten a bit sour by then. Given time off, he returned in a small stakes at Gulfstream and blew his field away.

Sent off at 24-1 in the Travers, he once again demonstrated that monster kick on the far turn, going from eighth to third, a length off the pacesetting West Coast. As mentioned earlier, he wasn't able to sustain his run on Saratoga's longer stretch, but more important, he had just run his previous two quarters in :23 and : 23 3/5 for a blazing half-mile run in :46 3/5. He still finished strongly to finish second to West Coast, coming home in a respectable :24 4/5.

And even more important than that, despite getting beat 3 1/4 lengths by West Coast, he actually earned a faster Thoro-Graph number than the winner, returning to his negative-2 1/2 from the Fountain of Youth. Now, instead of coming back in four weeks, he comes back in 10 weeks, and there is no reason to think he can't pair up that number or perhaps even improve on it. If he does, it put him right in the thick of things to at least finish in the money.

Putting him in the exactas and trifectas with whichever of the big horses you like, as well as Pavel and Mubtaahij, will pay big bucks, certainly a lot better than you'll get betting Arrogate, Gun Runner, West Coast, and Collected in whatever manner.

Speaking of Pavel, I still firmly believe this colt is freakish in what he has accomplished in only four career starts. I don't know if he's ready to compete with these horses right now, but definitely watch out for him next year. He could very well be racing's next big star.

So, my big angle longshot is Gunnevera. And why not put a few bob on him to win just for the fun of it. And if you read my other column last week you know that I am not ignoring the Aidan O'Brien pair, especially War Decree, who is fresh and coming into this race the right way and I feel is sitting on a big effort. For more details on War Decree and Churchill in the Classic see that column. Dangerous horse at a big price. Even Churchill, with his class and miler's speed scares me.

But the main focus of the race should be just enjoying the impending battle between Arrogate and Gun Runner and see what astounding tricks Bob Baffert can pull out of his hat. We have seen the magician at work many times, so don't be surprised by anything he conjures up on Saturday.

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