Will Gun Runner Be Defeated in the Whitney Stakes?

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

The road to the Breeders' Cup Classic has had a few surprising twists and turns thus far, such as Arrogate's surprising defeat in the San Diego Handicap two weeks ago, so although the $1.2 million Whitney Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga might look like a predictable race at first glance, the results might prove to be unexpected.

Seven horses have been entered in this nine-furlong "Win and You're In" Breeders' Cup Classic prep race, which will be broadcast live on NBC this Saturday. Let's start handicapping!

Whitney Stakes (gr. I)

The huge favorite in the Whitney will undoubtedly be Gun Runner, who has risen to impressive heights this year. Following a productive three-year-old campaign that included four graded stakes wins, culminating with a gate-to-wire romp over older horses in the Clark Handicap (gr. I), Gun Runner has gone 2-for-3 this year while winning the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) and running second to Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I).

Gun Runner's last three victories have yielded Beyer speed figures of 111, 110, and 110, numbers that stand out even in this talented Whitney field. With his tactical speed and versatility--he has won major races while on the lead and while coming from off the pace--Gun Runner might very well be an odds-on favorite to win the Whitney.

But while beating Gun Runner won't be easy, there are a couple of reasons to think he might be vulnerable. Despite his versatility, the fact remains that his last four wins were all achieved in identical gate-to-wire fashion, and on Saturday he'll have to deal with a pacemaker--Cautious Giant--who is entered to ensure that Gun Runner doesn't secure an easy lead.

Of course, Gun Runner may simply ignore the pacemaker and run his usual race, but there's also the question of the weather. There's a thunderstorm in the forecast for Saturday at Saratoga, and in the event that the track comes up significantly wet, that could compromise Gun Runner's chances. By far the two poorest efforts of his career were recorded over sloppy, sealed tracks, and while he did finish second in the Dubai World Cup over a tracked labeled "muddy," it wasn't sealed and didn't appear to be particularly slow or wet.

If the track does come up sloppy, I believe War Story might be capable of pulling off an upset. The five-year-old son of Northern Afleet hasn't been the most consistent runner, but when he's at his best, he can deliver some very big runs. Last time out, he parlayed a pace-tracking trip into an easy win in the 1 ½-mile Brooklyn Stakes (gr. II) at Belmont Park, earning a 102 Beyer. That victory followed an impressive effort in the Charles Town Classic (gr. II), where War Story rallied from behind to finish third by a half-length over a sloppy, sealed track.

To date, the Charles Town Classic has marked War Story's only defeat on a wet track, for he had previously won the Queen's County Stakes over a "good" track at Aqueduct by 7 ¾ lengths (earning a 106 Beyer) and an allowance race over a sloppy, sealed track at Thistledown by 9 ¼ lengths.

With plenty of pace to chase in the Whitney (assuming Cautious Giant does his job, with Gun Runner and the speedy Tu Brutus also forwardly placed), War Story figures to be perfectly positioned off the pace, waiting to strike in the homestretch. On a dry track, I would still prefer others (more on that in a moment), but a significantly wet and tiring track would be a different matter entirely. Over those conditions, I think War Story is an intriguing candidate for an upset.

Keen Ice also figures to draw wagering support off his upset victory in the ten-furlong Suburban Stakes (gr. II) on July 8th, in which he rallied from behind a modest pace to win easily by three lengths. That marked his first victory since upsetting Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the Travers Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga nearly two years ago, and while he'll be returning to the scene of that historic upset when he runs in the Whitney, nine furlongs is probably too short for Keen Ice, who has excelled going ten furlongs or farther.

I'm actually more interested in Tu Brutus, who earned huge Beyers of 118 and 108 while finishing second in the ten-furlong Excelsior Stakes (gr. III) and first in the 11-furlong Flat Out Stakes earlier this spring. He was the odds-on favorite to win the Brooklyn Stakes, but tired to finish third behind War Story after setting a slow pace. However, the New York Racing Association recently reported that Tu Brutus came out of the race with a guttural pouch infection, and I think a case can also be made that Tu Brutus went too slow early on in the Brooklyn, as his half-mile fraction of :50.06 was significantly slower than the fractions of :47.20 and :47.80 that he posted while utilizing his excellent early speed in the Excelsior and the Flat Out Stakes.

The combination of cutting back in distance and (presumably) getting involved in a quicker pace might yield a return to form for Tu Brutus, who might be a serious front-running threat to steal the race. After all, the main track at Saratoga has seemed rather slow and tiring, which could play to Tu Brutus' strengths given his seemingly abundant stamina.

So allow me to break this all down in simpler terms. On a dry track, Gun Runner is the horse to beat, though I think Tu Brutus can give him a fight on the lead and is worth a look at 6-1 or higher. On a wet track, the complexion of the race could change; I think Gun Runner becomes more vulnerable while the chances of War Story upgrade significantly.

For multi-race wagers, these are the three horses that interest me most. Determining which offers the best value for a potential win bet is another matter entirely, and a question that I can't really answer without the aid of the final track conditions and post-time odds. I won't argue with anyone that wants to play Gun Runner, but if you want to try to beat him at a short price, my best advice at this point is to take a shot with Tu Brutus if the track is dry and War Story if it comes up wet.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Whitney Stakes?


The Unlocking Winners Road to the Breeders' Cup Classic Handicapping Challenge is back for a third consecutive year! Please be sure to post all entries, prime horses, and stable additions on the official contest page. Thanks, and enjoy the racing!


J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.

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