Mornings With Gun Runner

There is no need for an alarm clock when you're in Saratoga, especially when you're staying with your close friends Avi and Rhoda Freedberg, whose home on Fifth Avenue backs right onto the Oklahoma training track.

It is just starting to get light out, and the sounds of horses hooves outside your window are all the stimuli you need to hop out of bed, throw on some clothes, go out to the back porch and through the gate and into heaven. At least for any person who loves the horses, the atmosphere of the backstretch, and watching top-class Thoroughbreds galloping or working no more than 50 yards from your porch. One cannot imagine anything more therapeutic for the body, mind, and soul on a brisk, invigorating Saratoga morning.

Just off to your left, a stones throw away, are the barns of Shug McGaughey, Chris Clement, and Bill Mott. Each morning you sit on the porch having your coffee as Wayne Lukas comes by on the pony, usually with a quip about how we are living the life. He is right. And there aren't many exercise riders at Oklahoma who do not know the Freedberg's irrepressible pooch Jose, who was the one who introduced me and Joan to Avi and Rhoda.

But before I have my first cup of coffee and dig in to Rhoda's spread of bagels, lox, whitefish salad and smoke salmon salad, quiche, and fruit, there is a daily ritual in which I must partake.

I head out the back gate and wait for the appearance of Gun Runner, who comes out every morning at 6:30 like clockwork, goes about his daily exercise, and then walks back, with assistant trainer Scott Blasi on the pony, passing right by our gate. Unlike every other horse on the Oklahoma training track, Gun Runner has his name on his saddle towel, as if trainer Steve Asmussen wants to show off his most prized possession. The morning doesn't officially begin until Gun Runner makes his appearance. I look at him as one would their neighbor who stops by for a visit each morning. I wonder if he cares for lox.

Blasi and I exchange greetings and I follow the horse to his barn, which is only about a five-minute walk. Once at the barn, I get out my trusty little Canon Power Shot and snap away at one of the most photogenic horses I have ever been around. He even is a joy to photograph getting his bath.

That is followed by a series of head shots. He has such a striking eye and poses so beautifully, you can't stop shooting. Just look how alert that eye is. I can almost smell the coffee brewing back at the house, but am so drawn to this horse it is too difficult to leave.

My favorite shot was taken the morning Steve Asmussen came to see Gun Runner cool out and leaned on the rail in the shedrow and couldn't take his eyes off the colt, who eyed him back, and that connection between the two was priceless. A moment frozen in time that showed the admiration and pride a trainer can have for his horse.

Asmussen was already looking past the upcoming Woodward Stakes following Gun Runner's easy score in the Whitney and had his sights already set on the Breeders' Cup Classic and one last chance for redemption against his nemesis Arrogate.

"He is everything you want him to be," he said. "He's never gone over the top and just keeps getting better. Hopefully we're still on the way up; we want him to take one more step forward. The difference between last year and this year is his confidence level. He's planning on winning every time he goes out there. He's just so light on his feet and his energy level is very high now.

"He's a great source of pride for all of us, and we're very proud of the job the whole team has done with him. We realize how fortunate we are to be in this position. I know it's the first time he's ever run at Del Mar and you can't train over the track until 10 days before the Breeders' Cup. But we expect nothing less than his best."

Another shot I thought was profound was the morning he and Kentucky Derby runner-up Lookin At Lee were out at the same time. Gun Runner had just finished having his morning bath when Lookin At Lee, on the walking ring, pulled a Lookin at Gun Runner, eyeballing him as if he knew he was looking at something special and was sizing him up.

It went on like this most mornings, with me making sure I was out by 6:30 to get my morning eye opener of Gun Runner. Next year will be my 50th year of coming to Saratoga, and now whenever I think of those glorious mornings at Oklahoma I will always think of Gun Runner and all the wonderful moments he provided, just by being who he is.

The last photo I took of him was following his 10 1/4-length romp in the Woodward Stakes. Scott Blasi, remembering the freakish incident in the Whitney when a shoe went flying and somehow became entangled in Gun Runner's tail and he ran with it stuck in there the entire race, walked up behind the colt after he returned and picked up his tail to show everyone there were no shoes caught in it this time.

Soon after, Joan and I left Saratoga for the 38th time together. Gun Runner remained, but soon would be off to Churchill Downs. "We want to get him out of New York before he starts to grow his winter coat," Asmussen said. "We'll train him at Churchill Downs and then send him to California early."

Gun Runner would go on to fulfill all the hopes and dreams of Asmussen, Blasi, and owner Ron Winchell by winning the Breeders' Cup Classic and nailing down Horse of the Year with his fourth straight grade 1 victory. I couldn't help but think back to that quiet morning at Saratoga with Asmussen just staring admiringly at Gun Runner and how, two months later, it would explode into the most frenzied display of emotion following a race since the 1994 Kentucky Derby and Nick Zito's eruption of cryptic words and flailing arms, while nearly devouring the ABC camera and declaring his love for God, his children, America, and the entire world. Asmussen was a man out of control in the most glorious way possible. It takes a special horse to reach that deep into the gut and bring out such raw emotion.

Having a special connection to Dr. Fager and John Nerud, I took great pleasure in the fact that Gun Runner is inbred top and bottom to Dr. Fager's grandson Fappiano and that Gun Runner's maternal great grandsire, Quiet American, is closely inbred 2 x 3 to Dr. Fager. Add to that, Gun Runner's fifth dam, Courbette, is a daughter of the legendary Gallorette.

So ended the summer of Gun Runner. There is a chance he will remain in training next year. I can only hope. If he does, you can find me standing out back of the Freedberg's house at 6:30 every morning waiting to walk with Gun Runner back to his barn. Only this time I'll be walking with the Breeders' Cup Classic winner and Horse of the Year.

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