The horse identifier checked the tattoo under Gun Runner’s top lip and gave a nod, confirming that the horse was who he was supposed to be.
“Thank God we brought the right one,” joked Steve Asmussen, the champion colt’s trainer, before placing a saddle on his back.
A good thing, indeed.
With jockey Florent Geroux along for the ride, Gun Runner closed out his racing career with a bang, rolling to a 2 1/2-length victory Saturday in Gulfstream Park’s $16 million Pegasus World Cup, the world’s richest race.
“Gun Runner rose to the occasion,” Asmussen said. “A fairy-tale ending to a beautiful story. It’s the cherry on top, this one.”
An estimated crowd of 16,400 rose and cheered when the even-money favorite repelled a stretch challenge from West Coast, the 7-2 second choice, and won like the champion he is.
Gun Runner, who was named the “Horse of the Year” for 2017 during ceremonies Thursday at Gulfstream, lived up to his reputation in the Pegasus, putting away a field of 11 challengers to capture the $7 million winner’s share of the enormous purse.
Although West Coast put in a challenge at the top of the stretch, he was no match for Gun Runner. Javier Castellano, the jockey aboard West Coast, said he was happy he would never again have to face Gun Runner, who is being retired to stud duty.
“The good thing is I don’t have to worry about him anymore,” Castellano said. “We lost to the best horse in the country. He put on a good, good show in a race like that.”
The other 10 horses were far back at the finish. Third-place finisher Gunnevera was 10 1/4 lengths behind West Coast, picking up the scraps among the also-rans.
Gun Runner, who capped off his 2017 racing season with four consecutive victories, including a win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in November, showed why there’s not another horse in his league.
“We wanted the horse to prove that the Breeders’ Cup and all of last year was not a fluke and that … the horse was unbeatable,” said Geroux, who became a U.S. citizen on Friday before flying from Chicago to hop aboard Gun Runner in the 5-year-old horse’s career finale.
Starting from an unfavorable post — No. 10 — Gun Runner was at a bit of an disadvantage from the outset. But he broke sharply, allowing Geroux to clear the field before entering the first turn and placing him in a close stalking position Collected — the early front-runner.
“When he broke like he did and got in the position that he did, we felt wonderful about it,” Asmussen said.
Gun Runner seized the lead in the final turn and kept West Coast at a safe distance in the stretch.
“I had every opportunity to beat him and was just second best,” said Castellano, who gave West Coast a perfect trip but didn’t have a horse able to keep up with the winner.
Trainer Bob Baffert, who won the inaugural Pegasus last year with Arrogate, tipped his cap to Gun Runner.
“Gun Runner, he was impressive,” Baffert said. “Unless he took a step back, I knew we couldn’t beat him.”
Said jockey Luis Saez, who was aboard Gunnevera: “When we came to the stretch, I saw the horses in front, and I knew we were trying for third because Gun Runner is a champion. He can really run.”
The champion raced like one.
“He has qualities we all wish we had,” Asmussen said. “The memory will be with us forever. What a special horse.”