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Fair Grounds Preview & FREE Picks | Gun Runner Stakes 2023: Cox, Asmussen Lead The Charge
Nash (Coady Photography)

Fair Grounds Preview & FREE Picks | Gun Runner Stakes 2023: Cox, Asmussen Lead The Charge

Aaron previews the 2023 Gun Runner Stakes from Fair Grounds, then gives his top picks from this 2024 Kentucky Derby (G1) prep race.

Trainers Brad Cox & Steve Asmussen both entered 2 horses as each attempts to win his 2nd edition of this race, but could someone else upset the whole thing? Tell us YOUR thoughts in the Comments section!

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The press release:

Off a dominant win in his second career start, the Godolphin homebred Nash has been installed as Mike Diliberto’s 7-5 morning line favorite against seven rivals in Saturday’s $100,000 Gun Runner Stakes. In addition to the $100,000 purse, the Gun Runner will offer 10-5-3-2-1 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.

With a post time of 5:30 p.m. CT, the Gun Runner is scheduled as the 12th & final race on Saturday’s “Road to the Derby Kickoff Day” card. The program also features the Untapable, a points race on the road to the Longines Kentucky Oaks. First post is noon CT.  

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Brad Cox, who trained Jace’s Road to a Gun Runner score last year, will tighten the girth around Nash. By Medaglia d’Oro out of the multiple stakes winning Malibu Moon mare Sara Louise, Nash has a strong pedigree. 

“This is a good horse, he’s very intelligent, does everything right, a super work horse,” Cox said. “He had a good move on Friday and we’re looking forward to facing winners for the first time on Saturday.”

Sprinting on debut on October 7 at Keeneland, Nash finished a clear second behind the gate to wire winner Booth. Stretched out to 1 1/16 miles for his next start at Churchill Downs, Nash went to the lead. He extended his margin of victory with every stride, romping up 10 ¼ lengths in front of his closest pursuer. He earned a 97 Brisnet Speed figure for his efforts. 

“He’s a good colt–we’ve liked him a lot,” Cox said. “It was a dominant performance (going two turns for the first time). He’s given us confidence. Based off how he works, he appears to have multiple gears. He really has a turn of foot. When the rider calls upon him, he accelerates quickly. We’re still trying to figure him out with only two runs under his belt but he’s a nice talent.”

Florent Geroux will have the return call aboard Nash from post 6. 

Albaugh Family Stable’s Catching Freedom, Cox’s other Gun Runner entrant, also merits respect. Despite a compromised start & extremely wide over a 1-turn mile in his career debut at Churchill, the son of Constitution rolled home to win by 3 ¾ lengths. 

“He’s somewhat of an average workhorse in the morning but he seems to be one that should get better as the distance gets longer,” Cox said. “And he’s a colt that will get better the more he does it, he’ll get a lot from running in the afternoon and the experience that comes from more racing.”

Stretched out to 1 1/16 miles for his follow-up start four weeks later, Catching Freedom once again got the worst of it at the start, and his journey didn’t get any easier from there. Covered up at the rail near the back of the back early, he was stuck in tight between horses on the far turn. Blocked behind a wall of runners, he was forced to check, and by the time he finally shook free, the race was over. His fourth-place finish behind Parchment Party will surely darken his form going into Saturday. 

“He’s still learning,” Cox said. “I thought he was very green in his last run. He was kind of leaning in and not responding to where his rider wanted him to go. If he had his mind more on going forward as opposed to leaning in, he could’ve gotten there, but overall, he’s still learning. I’m hopeful that he learned a lot from that race.”

Installed at odds of 5-1 on the morning line, Catching Freedom will leave from post 2 with Corey Lanerie aboard for the first time. 

Steve Asmussen, who trained Gun Runner for whom the race was named and won the inaugural edition with Epicenter, has two live runners in the race on Saturday. 

It took L and N Racing, Clark Brewster, Jerry Caroom and Breeze Easy’s Track Phantom three tries to break his maiden, but after finishing third then second over the one-turn mile at Churchill, he took his game to a new level in his first route try last time out. In a perfect pressing position early on, he took full command late on the backstretch and drew away to a convincing 4 ¾ length win. 

“He has a very high cruising speed and obviously I like the result of his only two-turn race,” Asmussen said. “He overcame the bias that day, but he was very relaxed down the back side and obviously had plenty left to finish up.”

Christian Torres, who was aboard the Quality Road colt in his first two starts, gets the call on Saturday and the team will leave from the far outside in post 8 as the 7-2 second choice in the morning line. 

“He needs to be away from there cleanly,” Asmussen said. “I would rather him not be on the far outside, horses often move to the open area just a bit. It’s way too competitive of a race to give away a step anywhere. He has broke alertly in all of his races, I would expect him to do the same.”

With two graded stakes tries already on the resume, Asmussen’s other runner, the Gun Runner colt Risk It, is the class of the field.

A dominant winner on August 19 at Saratoga first out of the box sprinting, Risk It stretched out to a one-turn mile for the Iroquois (G3) four weeks later at Churchill. Sent off as the 1.35-1 favorite, Risk It enjoyed a clear, stalking trip, but he could only manage second behind the 12-1 longshot West Saratoga. Stretched out to two-turns for the first time in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) last out, he was a bit rank early on and checked repeatedly on the backstretch. He found clear sailing on the far turn, but finished a well-beaten fourth behind Honor Marie. 

“In the Kentucky Jockey Club they went away from the gates with intention and he was in a really good spot around the first turn,” Asmussen said. “(Tyler Gaffalione) said he was handling nicely but then halfway around the backside he took off. It was his first two-turn run so a little confusion from him most likely. He has trained nicely since, has handled nicely in company and I would be surprised if he was that rank again, mainly with it being his second two-turn race.”

From post 3, Joel Rosario will be aboard Risk It at 5-1 in the morning line. 

Here is the complete field for the Gun Runner from the rail out (with jockey, trainer and morning line odds):

  1. Next Level (David Cohen, Keith Desormeaux, 20-1)
  2. Catching Freedom (Corey Lanerie, Brad Cox, 5-1)
  3. Risk It (Joel Rosario, Steve Asmussen, 5-1)
  4. Neat (Rey Gutierrez, Rob Atras, 12-1)
  5. Footprint (Brian Hernandez, Jr., Ken McPeek, 20-1)
  6. Nash (Florent Geroux, Brad Cox, 7-5)
  7. Snead (Jareth Loveberry, Brendan Walsh, 6-1)
  8. Track Phantom (Christian Torres, Steve Asmussen, 7-2)

Additional Quotes:

Brendan Walsh, trainer of Snead

“As he goes forward he’s going to continue to put himself in a better early position. I think he’s learning more with each race than anything else. It looks like he stays the distance pretty good so that’s always a big asset going into this time of year.” 

“He’s always seemed like a horse that wanted to go long, so we decided to start him on the turf because it would be better experience for him and he’d learn as he goes along. Hopefully he’s learning the game and will keep moving forward. He’s still got a long way to go. It’s a piece-by-piece thing. It seems like he’s putting the pieces together. We’ll find out more on Saturday.”

Keith Desormeaux, trainer of Next Level

“He’s always indicated to me that he has this level of talent. The numbers don’t back it up. The speed figure (in his maiden win) is low because he set a very slow pace. That’s not his fault. He’s not going to go any faster than he has to. But the question is will he be able to finish after he sets a pace of 47 (seconds) or 47 and change, which is two seconds faster than his last race. That’s going to be the question. That’s a conundrum for the gamblers. He always shows class and talent. Physically he looks like a horse that can run all day.”

“Talentwise he’s as good as any (Derby horses) I’ve had (over the years). But we’re going to test his heart. Confidence Game was a little more developed early on, a little more athletic. This is more of a rangier and likely later developing horse, but I can see the talent it’s there. If this horse has some grit, if he has some heart, he’s going to be a really good horse.”