Kentucky Derby Report (3/30): Gun Runner won't silence critics with convincing win
After recording a diminishing half-length win in the Risen Star (G2) on February 20, Gun Runner rolled to a convincing 4 ½-length victory in Saturday’s TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby (G2) at Fair Grounds. And his BRIS Speed ratings increased significantly, from a 97 (Risen Star) to a 104.
The Steve Asmussen-trained colt had much to prove entering 2016, recording a weakening third in his lone stakes attempt last year, the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2), and he’s clearly moved forward in both starts this season. But does Gun Runner rate as a serious Kentucky Derby contender? The answer depends on who you ask.
The Louisiana Derby final time was nearly a second slower than the New Orleans H. (G2) earlier on the program, a race won by a 20-1 former claimer, and Gun Runner needed nearly 13 seconds to complete his final eighth of a mile while facing arguably suspect company. Detractors will cite quality concerns and a six-week layoff as deciding factors, and Gun Runner isn’t receiving much respect as the 15-1 sixth choice among individual interests for Pool 4 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager this weekend.
However, supporters expect another forward move from the improving colt on May 7. Gun Runner possesses tactical speed and the athleticism to extricate himself from compromising positions, cornering extremely well in both starts this year, and he accelerates into the stretch with a strong turn of foot. Those are all positive traits for the Kentucky Derby.
Gun Runner fires fresh and the six-week layoff was no obstacle for Firing Line, who forced American Pharoah to lay it all on the line when recording an excellent runner-up in last year’s Kentucky Derby.
Gun Runner did not perform like a seasoned professional in the latter stages of the 1 1/8-mile Louisiana Derby, losing focus on a clear lead as he greenly weaved in and out through the final furlong, but he was drawing away at the same time, registering a commendable 100 BRIS Late Pace number in the final prep. Considering the chestnut was still lightly-raced, Asmussen expects Gun Runner to benefit greatly from the experience as he continues to show more at Churchill Downs.
I saw a noticeable difference in Gun Runner from the Risen Star, with the sophomore performing at a higher level as he stretched out in distance, and am impressed by his rising BRIS Speed ratings: 81-85-92-97-104.
His Speed ratings are increasing by an average 5.7 points in every start and if they continue at the same rate, he’ll post a figure in the 109-range next time. No Kentucky Derby winner since 2009 has reached that threshold.
He must still prove himself against deeper competition, but added distance is no concern. By Candy Ride, a major winner at 1 ¼ miles, Gun Runner hails from the Giant’s Causeway mare Quiet Giant, a graded winner at two turns and half-sister to Horse of the Year and Breeders’ Cup Classic hero Saint Liam. Gun Runner counts Quiet American, a Kentucky Derby-winning sire, and Lyphard as the sires of his second and third maternal dams. It's optimal breeding for the Kentucky Derby.
I like Gun Runner’s Kentucky Derby potential but will reserve final judgement until the preps are completed and post positions drawn (post 1 is an eliminator).
Tom’s Ready continued his pattern of inconsistent performances with a clear second, rebounding from a seventh-place clunker in the Risen Star. Bettors will include the More Than Ready colt in Kentucky Derby exotics due to trainer Dallas Stewart, who saddled Golden Soul and Commanding Curve to rallying runner-up showings at long odds in 2013-14, but Tom’s Ready has captured only a maiden race from nine starts and may find himself outclassed in the Kentucky Derby field.
Dazzling Gem recorded a solid third in his stakes bow and the unraced juvenile is expected to return three weeks later for the Arkansas Derby (G1). We’ll get better a read upon the Misremebered colt next time, but the lack of foundation will remain a legitimate concern.
Mo Tom experienced another troubled trip after altering course in the stretch run and may have challenged for second with a clean trip. But he’s also leaving himself too much to do at the head of the stretch after lagging toward the back of the field through the far turn.
Watch the videos of the Lecomte (G3) and Louisiana Derby, keeping tabs on confirmed closers Tom’s Ready and Mo Tom through the far turn. They’ll enter the bend in close proximity to each other but Tom’s Ready is the only one passing horses, advancing nicely through the turn to put himself in prime position by the top of the stretch. Mo Tom doesn’t/can’t pass horses until the conclusion of the turn, doing his best running in the straightaway of the stretch. It’s led to traffic woes in multiple starts and looms as a major negative in a projected 20-horse Kentucky Derby field.
Greenpointcrusader had no excuses finishing a well-beaten seventh, with his Kentucky Derby hopes taking a severe hit. Runner-up to Mohaymen in Holy Bull (G2) at Gulfstream, Greenpointcrusader has only won at one-turn distances and his only fast race came in the slop.
Kentucky-bred but Japanese-based Lani stamped his Kentucky Derby ticket with a victory in the U.A.E. Derby (G2) at Meydan, rebounding from a dull fifth in his 2016 bow at Tokyo to score by three parts of a length over the heavily-favored filly Polar River.
The UA.E. Derby came up much weaker than last year -- the connections of U.S.-bound Polar River had already eliminated her from Kentucky Oaks consideration (they don’t want to get drilled by Songbird) – and Lani probably will find himself overmatched at Churchill Downs. But he adds an element of intrigue to the Kentucky Derby build-up.
Saturday’s Florida Derby (G1) features a highly-anticipated showdown between unbeaten major contenders Mohaymen and Nyquist. I’m not keen on Nyquist’s chances at 1 ¼ miles in the Kentucky Derby, but expect him handle nine furlongs over a Gulfstream oval that could favor early speed.
And the Doug O’Neill-conditioned Nyquist has a tactical advantage over Mohaymen with his speed.
Mohaymen has not beaten any accomplished rivals to date, with Remsen (G2) and Nashua (G2) runner-up Flexibility failing to develop into a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender so far; Holy Bull runner-up Greenpointcrusader being overmatched in the Louisiana Derby; and Fountain of Youth (G2) second Zulu posting his only wins (maiden and allowance) on wet tracks going one turn, and I’m excited to see how the Kiaran McLaughlin-trained Mohaymen fares against a rival of Nyquist’s caliber.
1) Mohaymen – Will establish himself as the overwhelming Kentucky Derby favorite with a Florida Derby victory
2) Gun Runner – After tough test in Risen Star, rapidly-improving colt dominated the Louisiana Derby; expect him to continue to show more at Churchill Downs
3) Danzing Candy – Promises to bring plenty of speed to Kentucky Derby & will solidify his status as a top contender with another wire-to-wire performance in 4/9 Santa Anita Derby
4) Cupid – Loved the late bloomer’s Rebel win; his stock will continue to rise with another strong showing in 4/16 Arkansas Derby
5) Mor Spirit – Pleased connections with rallying second in San Felipe (G2) and winning the Santa Anita Derby won’t be of high importance either; Baffert wants late runner to peak on May 7
6) Shagaf – Will need to keep improving but suspect the ceiling runs high for undefeated Gotham (G3) winner; 4/9 Wood Memorial will tell us more
7) Nyquist – Expecting a big effort Saturday (connections shipped for $1 million bonus not for the best path to Kentucky Derby) but don’t believe it will translate to success five weeks later
8) Whitmore – Southwest and Rebel runner-up rates as an up-and-coming colt and he’ll try to carry momentum forward in Arkansas Derby
9) Destin – Connections giving serious consideration to training Tampa Bay Derby winner up to the Kentucky Derby off 8-week rest; he’ll continue to drop if that becomes official
10) Suddenbreakingnews – Willing to excuse unplaced Rebel effort due to traffic trouble and Arkansas Derby will determine whether he belongs in upper echelon
Here are my previous Kentucky Derby Reports:
March 22: Cupid dazzles in stakes debut
March 9: Shagaf grinds out Gotham
February 24: Bullish on Gun Runner
February 17: Nyquist returns a stylish winner
February 10: Baffert remains in the spotlight with Mor Spirit
February 3: Mohaymen justifies star billing
January 20: Stakes-experience proves valuable
January 7: January brings a sense of anticipation