Behind every Thoroughbred that makes its way to the racetrack is a team of people who have plowed plenty of capital and sweat equity into turning a dream into a reality. And there is always a great backstory.
Not every Thoroughbred becomes a winner—a pretty small percentage actually win a race—and the exceptional horse is a rare commodity.
“Exceptional” is a good word for Gun Runner, whom trainer Steve Asmussen guided through a remarkable 2017 campaign on his way to Horse of the Year honors along with the title of champion older dirt male. Every member of his team is known to operate at the highest level.
The 5-year-old son of Candy Ride was afforded one more start before stud duty beckons, and he made the hair stand up on the back of our necks Jan. 27 with his 2 1/2-length win in the $16.3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes (G1).
Two days earlier, during the Eclipse Award ceremony, co-owner Ron Winchell summed it up succinctly:
“That’s really what horse racing is all about…great moments with your family, your friends, and building new friendships. I owe so much thanks to Gun Runner.”
Winchell built a new friendship with co-owner Goncalo Torrealba back when Gun Runner was being raised at Three Chimneys Farm near Versailles, Ky.
Gun Runner was on track to be offered at auction at 2 in 2015, but Winchell eyed the colt and offered to team on the horse with Three Chimneys. The following year Winchell and Torrealba had a 10-1 shot for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1). Although Gun Runner ran third under the Twin Spires in May 2016, he’s more than made up for it since.
Gun Runner’s $7 million payout for the Pegasus brings his total earnings to $15,988,500, second all-time in North America to last year’s Pegasus winner Arrogate.
The partnership has worked both ways. In an interview last October, Three Chimneys owner Torrealba paid Ron Winchell the highest of compliments.
“Ron?” Torrealba said. “He’s uncomplicated. He loves horses, loves horse racing; very straightforward. He did something very nice for Three Chimneys. He introduced us to Steve Asmussen.”
For Three Chimneys the backstory to Horse of the Year title goes to the early fall 2014 when the operation announced the farm had entered a partnership with Benjamin Leon’s Besilu operation.
The farm press release stated: “The objective of the new partnership is to breed and race at the highest levels in the industry, which is a commonality shared between Leon and Three Chimneys chairman Goncalo Torrealba.”
At the time Gun Runner was a yearling.
Part of the partnership package was Quiet Giant, Gun Runner’s dam. Leon had gone to $3 million to secure her from the late Edward P. Evans dispersal at the 2011 Keeneland November mixed sale.
Leon also purchased Quiet Dance, the dam of Quiet Giant (and 2005 Horse of the Year Saint Liam) for $800,000; her A.P. Indy 3-year-old Dance Quietly for $2 million; and a weanling half sister to Dance Quietly by Medaglia d’Oro for $2.6 million.
“Mr. Leon really liked the family,” Besilu farm manager Fabricio Buffolo said at the time.
He wasn’t kidding.
In the grips of the “Great Recession,” the Evans dispersal raked in more than $62 million for its 221 head that were spread over the Keeneland September yearling sale and the November sale. The gross far surpassed that of the Nelson Bunker Hunt dispersal, that was the granddaddy of them all back in 1998. Nary a weekend goes by without a stakes winner’s backstory weaving through a mare from the Evans’ dispersal. As well, Evans’ Quality Road, a stallion at Lane’s End, was responsible for two of 2017 Eclipse Award winners.
Evans’ Spring Hill Farm in Virginia was managed by Chris Baker. After the last horse was sold, it was pretty clear Baker was going to land on his feet in Kentucky. He’s now the chief operating officer of Three Chimneys Farm.
Less than 24 hours after the Pegasus, BloodHorse visuals director Anne M. Eberhardt already had posted video of Gun Runner’s arrival at Three Chimneys. He has plenty of work ahead of him in 2018—a new life as a stallion, hopefully turning more dreams into reality.