As a three-year-old, Gun Runner was routinely lost in the shuffle. Most handicappers and fans were more obsessed with Nyquist and Exaggerator, who won the 2016 Kentucky Derby and 2016 Preakness Stakes respectively. Since then, both horses have retired to stud along with 2016 Belmont winner Creator triggering a belief that the Triple Crown system is broken. Gun Runner peaking throughout his four-year-old season is proof that it’s just fine.
To be fair, California Chrome and American Pharaoh spoiled us all. The thought of a Triple Crown winner in the modern era started to feel like it was slipping away. When Art Sherman and California Chrome couldn’t get it done in 2014, while complaining about how unfair it is for new shooters to enter the fray part way through the series, the effort felt even more unreachable.
So the fact that American Pharoah stormed through and won the Triple Crown and the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic invigorated our expectations. And we should remember that horses mature at different paces. The truth is that we are waiting for a star to emerge, and sometimes the most talented stars in this sport don’t adhere to the schedule that’s imposed by the calendar itself.
Gun Runner peaking when he is should stand out as a pivotal example. There were hints of his talent in the 2016 Louisiana Derby, and the fact that he finished a strong third in the subsequent Kentucky Derby has spoken volumes. At 10-3-2 in 17 starts, Gun Runner has only fallen out of the money twice – once in the 2016 Haskell and early on in his career during the 2015 Kentucky Jockey Club Gold Cup. It’s been a meteoric, and steady, climb ever since.
He’s not alone. The very horse he is facing in the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Classic is another four-year-old who didn’t even compete in the 2016 Triple Crown when he’s eligible. I’m speaking of Arrogate, of course. Despite a disinterested run in the San Diego Handicap and a stunning upset in the Pacific, nobody is doubting what Arrogate is capable of. We just have to wonder if Gun Runner peaking at this point is enough to put away Arrogate at Del Mar in two weekends.
Since returning from a runner-up finish in the 2017 Dubai World Cup, Gun Runner has stampeded through the Stephen Foster, Whitney and Woodward with relative ease. This is not the same horse that we saw in the 2016 Triple Crown. Now the best racehorse in the world, we have to wonder what our expectations of the Triple Crown should actually be.
Maybe we should remember that it’s supposed to be difficult to win the Triple Crown in the first place. The gauntlet run through the various mini-circuits in Florida, Louisiana, California and Kentucky are hard enough. Getting a juvenile to boom early on as a three-year-old is a tall task, and by no means does it mean that the Triple Crown contenders are the best of the age grade. West Coast and Arrogate are prime examples of late maturing three-year-olds.
Even 2017 Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming, who many thought would retire, has sprung some new life in to his career and will return as a four-year-old.
The point is that anything can happen in this sport at any time. Gun Runner peaking is just one example that we should never sell horses short just because they don’t perform at some arbitrary moment in time. As the careers of California Chrome and many other older horses also prove, falling off after a gruelling Triple Crown run doesn’t mean that the good times are always over.
The Triple Crown series isn’t broken or flawed. It simply happens when it does, and some horses aren’t ready. Thankfully the Breeders’ Cup and the summer meets present many opportunities for stars to be born. The growth of Thoroughbred racing means a fuller calendar that doesn’t just revolve around three races and one horse who wins the first one.