Any good teacher will attest that it takes various levels of patience and curricula to get the best from individual students.
In the year he is set to be honored with induction in racing’s Hall of Fame, the most fitting tribute to trainer Steve Asmussen’s mentoring abilities is that he was able to get both the steady Gun Runner and the mercurial Creator to reach the doorstep of the 142nd Kentucky Derby at the same, peak level.
On a refreshingly crisp Monday morning, the 3-year-old flagbearers of the Asmussen barn had the same task: Get through their final half-mile works in advance of Saturday’s classic without doing anything to shake their trainer’s confidence.
Both Gun Runner and Creator dutifully obliged with the former going 4 furlongs in :50.40, with splits of :12.60, :25 and :37.80 over the Churchill Downs surface while his stablemate carved out his half-mile move in :50.60, with eighth-mile splits of :12.60, :25.20 and :38.
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If their trainer is unwilling to separate the two in terms of which has the best chance at handing him his first Kentucky Derby victory, he is happy to give equal praise to the colts.
From the time he first set his feet down at Churchill Downs, Gun Runner was touting himself to return beneath the Twin Spires on the first Saturday in May. The eventual Louisiana Derby winner broke his maiden over the track at first asking last September and has only tasted defeat once in five career starts, that coming when he ran second over a sloppy Churchill surface in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last November.
Lessons would not come as easily for WinStar Farm’s Creator, a beautifully built son of Tapit whose mind took its sweet time catching up with his body. Before he stormed into the Kentucky Derby forefront with his last-to-first run in the Grade I Arkansas Derby on April 16, the gray colt took six tries to break his maiden, finally getting over the hump with a 7¼-length win going 1 1/16 miles at Oaklawn Park on Feb. 27.
“I think both horses came into the year with high expectations and you’re hoping for very good things from them, but they’re very different horses to get to this point,” said Asmussen, who has saddled 13 prior starters in the Kentucky Derby with runner-up Nehro (2011) his best finish. “Creator, he’s always had a lot of talent, he’s a great physical and it’s been in him. He just lacked focus in his races. It was a bit frustrating running him. You felt like he should have won several of the races you were watching.
“Gun Runner last fall, I think he identified himself as a horse who could be a serious 3-year-old. Obviously, we’re hoping for Triple Crown-type races last year with the brilliance he showed from day one.”
Owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm, Gun Runner has made the crucial progression from 2 to 3 years old look routine. In his first start since the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, the son of Candy Ride had enough bottom in him to prevail by half a length in the Grade II Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds on Feb. 20.
A horse whose winning margins increase as the distances get longer demands attention when looking ahead to the Kentucky Derby’s 10-furlong test. In the 1 1/8 -mile Louisiana Derby on March 26, Gun Runner rated just off the early leaders and then kicked on under steady urging from jockey Florent Geroux to win by 4½ lengths.
“I think between the Kentucky Jockey Club and now he has grown about an inch and a half, just strengthened and is maturing,” said Doug Cauthen, vice chairman of Three Chimneys. “Obviously he’s pretty tactical, which he’s always been, but I think he’s stronger. We’re pretty happy with where he’s at.”
When representatives of WinStar Farm were making the rounds at the 2014 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, they had a couple sons of Tapit high on their short list. The one they watched sell to Shadwell Stable for a co-sale topping $2.2 million — now known as multiple graded stakes winner Mohaymen — is also set to be in the Kentucky Derby starting gate Saturday. The one they landed for $440,000 put their faith through the wringer before ultimately proving their judgment spot on.
Creator’s first handful of outings were an exercise in annoyance. The late-running colt finished second in four of his first five starts including a couple races at Fair Grounds where he had to close into tepid fractions. When he finally got an honest pace to work with, the gray colt practically dragged jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. to the winner’s circle at Oaklawn on Feb. 27.
With that, he graduated into stakes company where he ran third in the Grade II Rebel Stakes. When fellow WinStar-owned Gettysburg ran through an opening half-mile in :46.33 in the Arkansas Derby, Creator’s big stride let him circle foes as he advanced from the back of the 12-horse field en route to a 1¼-length triumph.
“In New Orleans, it was just a mess. They went :25 and :50 in two maiden races and he was just behind a wall of horses and still learning how to run,” Elliott Walden, president of WinStar Farm, said of Creator. “Those were two very discouraging races because after he ran second (at Churchill Downs in his career debut last September) …we thought we had a Derby-type horse. It’s nice he got back on track at Oaklawn and the faster-run races were definitely to his liking.
“Steve did a great job … he let him come into his own. He even ran him on the grass a couple times, just mentally trying to get him to come along and progress like a team at the beginning of the season you hope gets to the playoffs.”
The toughest part of the learning curve looms May 7. When asked to assess his colts compared to unbeaten champion and current Kentucky Derby favorite, Nyquist, Asmussen bluntly stated that neither Creator nor Gun Runner “has run a race to date that would beat Nyquist.”
His job, however, is to set his horses on a path where their next test could yield their biggest score.
“That’s what we’re here for, to be better,” Asmussen said. “I think that both horses are in a frame of mind that they would run their best.”
6:34 p.m. (NBC)