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Razorback Handicap Preview: Gun Runner Makes 2017 Debut

Churchill Downs/Coady Photography

HOT SPRINGS, AR (Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017) – Oaklawn General Manager Eric Jackson said he was kicking around ideas a couple of years ago to strengthen the track’s two-turn stakes program for older horses when he zeroed in on the Razorback Handicap. Jackson said he was thinking of a hefty purse hike.

Racing secretary Pat Pope had an idea, too. He wanted to move the 1 1/16 Razorback up approximately a month on the calendar to give horses an attractive steppingstone from Arkansas to the $10 million Dubai World Cup (G1), run this year March 25 at Meydan Racecourse.

Mission accomplished? Maybe.

One horse entered in Monday’s $500,000 Razorback (G3) is eying a trip to the Middle East and that’s Gun Runner, the overwhelming 4-5 program favorite for his scheduled 4-year-old debut.

Probable post time for the Razorback, the seventh of 10 races, is 4:09 p.m. (Central). Racing begins at 1:05 p.m.

Trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner’s eye-catching resume includes a victory against older horses in the $500,000 Clark Handicap (G1) Nov. 25 at Churchill Downs in his last start, a victory in the $1 million Louisiana Derby (G2) last March and a third-place finish in the $2 million Kentucky Derby (G1) last May.

After a heavyweight matchup with California Chrome and Arrogate ($12 million Pegasus World Cup) was scrubbed last month following an outbreak of equine herpes at Fair Grounds, Gun Runner, a career winner of $2,037,800, was re-routed to Oaklawn to prep for a possible trip to the desert.

“The only downside to it was we would have liked to have run (in Florida) to assess how he was doing as a 4-year-old and make the decision then as to whether to go to Dubai,” said David Fiske, manager for Winchell Thoroughbreds, which co-owns the Candy Ride colt with Three Chimneys Farm. “It would have given us a little more latitude. If he’d run well against Arrogate and California Chrome, and California Chrome retires, you’d think he and Arrogate would be the two best older horses in the country and you could go to Dubai with some confidence. As far as the timeframe, that was really the only disappointment of it.”

Fiske said the Razorback, previously worth $350,000, was the “next most attractive race on the calendar” for Gun Runner, who was based this winter at Fair Grounds before shipping to Oaklawn earlier this month.

The Razorback also gives Gun Runner’s connections more time to ponder a trip to the Middle East, Fiske said.

Regular rider Florent Geroux is scheduled to ride Gun Runner, who, after being assigned top weight of 122 pounds, drew the rail.

Also entered in the Razorback from the rail out: Domain’s Rap, Ramon Vazquez to ride, 117 pounds, 6-1 on the morning line; Blue Tone, Jose Ortiz, 116, 9-2; Smack Smack, Shane Laviolette, 115, 10-1; Hawaakom, Miguel Mena, 115, 10-1; Chief of Staff, Walter De La Cruz, 111, 20-1; Dazzling Gem, Robby Albarado, 115, 8-1; and Goats Town, Chris Landeros, 110, 20-1.

Trainer Brad Cox said Sunday morning that Dazzling Gem will be scratched and remain at Fair Grounds to run in the $125,000 Mineshaft Handicap (G3) Feb. 25.

Gun Runner has a series of fast workouts leading up to his 4-year-old debut, including a sparkling 5-furlong bullet drill (:59.80) Monday morning.

“The trepidation I have is the weather,” Fiske said. “His two worst races have been on an off track. That would be my greatest concern. I think his work the other day was pretty … I think he’s ready.”

Blue Tone ships in from Southern California for trainer Bob Hess Jr. off a front-running 1 ¼-length victory in the $200,000 San Gabriel Stakes (G3) on a sloppy track Jan. 7 at Santa Anita. Hess said the purse was a major reason why Blue Tone is in the Razorback, adding he believes the 8-year-old Birdstone gelding will like the surface, particularly if it’s wet.

The downside, Hess said, is facing Gun Runner.

“He’s ready to run,” Hess said of Blue Tone. “Gun Runner, obviously, is a huge, huge obstacle, a horse we respect. Hopefully, we can run second to him. That’s all I can say. We’re trying to win, but a second wouldn’t be too shabby, either.”

Top Choice

#2 Domain’s Rap – This horse LOVES Oaklawn Park and is running better than he ever has this year.  How they’ve gotten this 9 year old Illinois bred to run like this is a mystery, but his two wins at Oaklawn Park this year have been very impressive.  He’s not near the horse Gun Runner is and he never will be, but he’s the hot horse with recent races under his belt while Gun Runner will be coming in off a layoff.  If he’s ever going to beat him today will be the day, and I think he’s got a great shot to do it.  Worth a play over Gun Runner who may not be ready for a big effort just yet.

Horses to Use in Multi Race Wagers

#1 Gun Runner –  Make no mistake about it…this is the best horse in the race by a MILE.  If he shows up with his normal race this will turn into a laugher, but Asmussen’s track record with horses making their four year old debut’s is particularly poor.  Think about the great horses he’s had making their first starts as four year olds…Rachel Alexandra, Untapable, and Tapiture all lost in the same type of situation Gun Runner is in today.  Perhaps it won’t matter, but Asmussen’s track record makes me willing to take a shot against.  Also if it rains and the track comes up sloppy this horse will be scratching so that is something to look out for throughout the day.  Could have a big 2017, but he might be beatable here…

Exotic Plays

#4 Smack Smack – There is no doubt that this horse is one of our favorites in training right now, and is ever so close to becoming the first millionaire ever trained by legendary trainer Don Von Hemel.  He has finished first or second in his last six races all of which have been stakes efforts.  I’m not sure he can turn the tables today on Domain’s Rap or Gun Runner today with the likely slow pace set up, but this horse can still make an impact underneath.

#3 Blue Tone – Comes into this one off a Grade 2 victory at Santa Anita in an off the turf event.  Winning on the dirt has never been much of a problem for this horse, and if the weather forecast is accurate there is a good chance he’ll get on off track once again on Monday.  I don’t think he’s quite as talented as the top couple in here, but there is no doubt in my mind that he will be around in the end and have a shot.

Party Crashers

 #5 Hawaakom – Impressive winner last time out over Dazzling Gem at the Fair Grounds, but two races back he was no match for Gun Runner in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap.  If you are banking on Gun Runner not running well today it gives him some slight hope, and the price will be a rewarding one.  He’s not all the likely to turn the tables today, but he is just intriguing enough to not be a throw out.  If he gets a little pace to run it he can make up some ground.

Throw Outs

#6 Chief of Staff – At times he’s ran with six or so lengths of the top few in here, but he’s never been close to beating them.  I expect the trend to continue today.

#7 Dazzling Gem – Fairly nice horse, but perhaps not good enough to win a race as tough as this one.  He’s also entered at the Fair Grounds on Saturday so it’s questionable he’ll run in this spot. UPDATE: WILL SCRATCH

#8 Goats Town – Big long shot here as Lukas is just taking a shot and hoping it works out.  I don’t think it will.

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