The deep end of the pool has routinely been where champion Runhappy is most comfortable.
In just his fifth career start and first try against Grade I company, the son of Super Saver turned last year’s King’s Bishop Stakes into a one-horse showcase. When the then 3-year-old phenom jumped up to take on older horses, he cemented himself as the superior male sprinter in North America with the exclamation point coming when he won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint last October.
The easy thing to do as the bay colt readies for his first start since winning the Grade I Malibu Stakes last December would have been to keep him in his comfort zone. However, his connections maintain that this is a horse who responds best when asked for more — a theory they are going to put to the test Saturday when he makes his season debut in the Grade III, $100,000 Ack Ack Handicap at Churchill Downs.
Brilliant as Runhappy is at sprint distances, owner James McIngvale and trainer Laura Wohlers have maintained that the 4-year-old runner would be equally effective over a route of ground. With designs on a run in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile this year at Santa Anita Park rather than defending his sprint title, Runhappy will stretch out beyond 7 furlongs for just the second time against five challengers in the 1-mile Ack Ack, the centerpiece of a stakes tripleheader at Churchill Downs that also includes the $175,000 Lukas Classic and the $100,000 Jefferson Cup.
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“I think he’ll do fine going a mile; we never had a question about that,” Wohlers said. “We feel like he will go longer. He doesn’t move like a sprinter. He has that long stride and doesn’t act like he gets tired at the end of that 6 furlongs like most sprinters do.
“He’s just a nice horse, a good-natured horse and he does well with our training. He likes to train hard.”
The only other time Runhappy raced beyond 7 furlongs came in his second career outing when he finished ninth in the 2015 Grade III Lecomte Stakes going 1 mile and 70 yards at Fair Grounds — his lone loss in eight career starts. His progression since those early days has been obvious, but the main focus as he returns from bone bruising that sidelined him earlier this year is getting the bay colt to relax enough to carry his blazing speed.
“In the Lecomte he was still real green, young and kind of figuring things out. But he’s developed very nicely since then,” Wohlers said. “I think that he’s always been so fluid. If you gallop him 2 miles he doesn’t even take a breath afterward.
“With a nine-month layoff you’re always concerned, but he’s just been doing so well. We’ve had our setbacks with him this year, but the time off has ended up being good. He’s come back so much stronger than he was last year.”
Should the mile experiment pay dividends for Runhappy, loftier goals could loom in the coming months. Wohlers has mentioned the Grade I Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs in November as a possible post-Breeders’ Cup target with the idea of potentially taking the champion colt to the $12 million Pegasus World Cup slated to be held at Gulfstream Park over 1 1/8 miles on Jan. 28, 2017.
“When I saw him (at the 2013 Keeneland September Yearling Sale) I was like, this is the horse,” Wohlers recalled of Runhappy. “He was just such an obvious athlete. You get lucky sometimes.”
Ack Ack Handicap
What: Grade III stakes race for 3-year-olds and up
Where: Churchill Downs
Post time: 4:49 p.m.
Distance: 1 mile
Favorite: Runhappy (1-2)