On Track with Johnny D: Ain’t Chopped Liver

Worldwide horse racing fans aren’t salivating at the prospect of seeing Gun Runner contest the $16 million Pegasus World Cup Saturday at Gulfstream Park. The 5-year-old, expected to be named 2017 Horse of the Year Thursday night, lacks a following commensurate with his accomplishments. Why? Stay tuned for a theory because, based on ‘just the facts ma’am,’ it doesn’t make sense.

Gun Runner’s currently the best dirt horse in the world—boasting speed, class and, if he wins Saturday as expected, two more career Grade 1 wins (6) than Arrogate (4)—the horse hailed early in 2017 as possibly the greatest US equine since…well, you know who!

So, why isn’t Gun Runner revered, beloved and adulated like Arrogate, American Pharaoh, California Chrome, Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra were before him? He’s certainly earned enough money. If Gun Runner wins Pegasus he will vault from tenth on the all-time Thoroughbred earnings list to second behind last year’s Pegasus champ Arrogate. On the way up the economic ladder he’ll blow by turf luminaries such as Skip Away, Cigar, Curlin and California Chrome! And that, as they say, ain’t chopped liver!

Including probable Pegasus first-place loot, Gun Runner will have earned roughly $16 million in 19 starts. Not bad, though still roughly $2 million less than Patriots QB Tom Brady will make this year on the field in the same number of appearances. Since we’re talking money it also should be noted that upon his retirement, unlike Gun Runner, the 40-year-old, five-time super bowl-winning quarterback won’t command a six-figure stud fee (although he probably could).

So, again, where’s the Gun Runner love? I just reviewed his 2017 past performances and I’m obviously missing something…because he isn’t. The only thing that outperformed him last year was the stock market.

Gun Runner’s the Rodney Dangerfield of quality horses. He’s the morning line favorite against 11 foes in the world’s richest race and still gets no respect.

Dig this: In 2017, after winning 4 out of 5 Grade 1 races by an average margin of more than six lengths, Gun Runner wasn’t favored in the BC Classic! He paid $6.80 as second choice behind Arrogate—loser of two in a row. Sheesh! For the record, I didn’t pick Gun Runner on top in the Classic, either. Why? Because he gets no respect! Also because I’m an idiot. What other possible explanation can there be?

Thursday night at Gulfstream Park, when Gun Runner’s connections take center stage to accept that golden Eclipse trophy on his behalf as the 2017 Horse of the Year, it won’t be a complete surprise if they halfway apologize. “Thanks for this,” they might begin. “We realize that after Arrogate laid eggs at Del Mar our horse became the only other viable option for voters. Still, this is a wonderful honor.”

Yes, it is. And this son of Candy Ride deserves it. And more. Horses with Gun Runner’s running lines usually pose for life-sized bronze statues. Have races named in their honor. Grand Marshall parades. Not this guy. Not so far, anyway, and the shot clock is about to expire.

It can’t be his looks that turn people off. That shiny, dappled, chestnut coat can’t conceal the fact that Gun Runner’s muscles appear to have muscles!

His consistency? Nope. Ain’t that. He’s won 11 of 18 starts with 3 seconds and 2 thirds. Do the math. He’s been worse than third just twice in his entire career—both over sloppy tracks. By comparison, Arrogate missed show money twice in his last three races.

Must be his weak figs? What weak figs? All five 2017 starts earned triple-digit Beyer Speed Ratings that gradually increased from a pair of 110s to 112 to 115 to 117 in the BC Classic. His Thoro-Graph sheet is a work of art suitable for framing. His TG figs gradually improved from an initial maiden 7 to a blistering Woodward negative 5 1/2. That figure is one-quarter point faster than Arrogate ever ran. And here’s the best part: Gun Runner either duplicated or exceeded a previous Thoro-Graph number in all 17 pre-BC races except for one—over a sloppy track in the Haskel at Monmouth.

Durability? Barking up the wrong tree here. During four racing seasons—from September of his 2-year-old season through Pegasus in late January at five—he never spent longer than three months on the bench.

All things considered, why aren’t racing fans busting at the seams to see Gun Runner perform Saturday? Why no ‘Sold Out’ sign hanging from the Pegasus statue’s massive neck? What’s the deal? Inquiring minds want to know!

Here’s all I got: Gun Runner’s not a 2018 household name because he wasn’t dynamic in 2016 as a 3-year-old. That’s it. Has to be.

Racing fans just can’t process the fact that the shy, skinny, pimple-faced kid from down the block has developed into Tom Brady! To them he’s still ‘Tommy’—the polite, string bean-looking paperboy who, for a few extra bucks also shovels snowy sidewalks. Hard-working and dependable, everyone assumed ‘Tommy’ would succeed. However, few imagined that things for him would turn out to be so…well…so ‘Super!’ That he would quarterback an NFL team to five Super Bowl victories (so far) and also marry a ‘Super’-model!

In a gambling game that demands participants exhibit short term memories as forgiving as those of NFL cornerbacks, fans either can’t or won’t forget that Gun Runner was nothing more than a sophomore exotics filler—third in both Nyquist’s Kentucky Derby and Arrogate’s Travers, Gun Runner also was second in the Pennsylvania Derby. Victories in the Risen Star, Louisiana Derby and Matt Win were nice, but unsexy. A disappointing fifth out of six runners in a ‘sloppy’ Haskell reinforced his ‘less-than’ image.

Since then he’s been typecast. A former child actor begging for a serious starring role. He’s nailed every audition but still can’t get catch a major break. Maybe Saturday will be his Olivier moment.

If so, many will be forced to admit that they missed the boat. Pegasus will be Gun Runner’s final race. Soon, he will mount mares daily for a living, unconcerned that while racing he got no respect.

And what if Gun Runner doesn’t win Pegasus; if tangling with the likes of speedy Sharp Azteca, a Bob Baffert-trained tag team of Connected and West Coast, hard-charging Gunnevera and seven other challengers is too much? No worries. Either way Gun Runner will head home to Kentucky to begin a second chapter of life armed with a resume that ain’t chopped liver.

Race On!

On Track with Johnny D: Ain’t Chopped Liver

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