It was an ectasy, agony-type of day for trainer Steve Asmussen.
In the end, however, Asmussen left the Fair Grounds ecstactic Saturday after his horse, Gun Runner, won the Grade II, $400,000 Veterans Ford Risen Star Stakes.
The victory, in the day’s biggest race, put Gun Runner in the Kentucky Derby. And, it came after Asmussen and jockey Florent Geroux experienced great disappointment when 7-5 favorite Stageplay finished fifth in the $200,000 Rachel Alexandra for 3-year-old fillies less than an hour before .
“It was an up and down kind of day,” Asmussen said. “But (Gun Runner) ran a great race, and I couldn’t be happier. Obviously, this is a track in which the inside is racer-friendly, and we used that to our advantage.”
The win was worth 50 points toward the Kentucky Derby. It usually takes about 22 points for strong consideration.
Forevamo, trained by local Al Stall, was a half-length back in second and picked up 20 points. Mo Tom, the 3-1 second favorite trained by local Tom Amoss and owned by Gayle Benson, wife of Saints owner Tom Benson, finished third, 1½ lengths back. Tom’s Ready, trained by local Dallas Stewart and which was the Benson’s other entry, was seventh in the 11-horse field.
Airoforce, the 5-2 favorite, finished a stunning 10th.
Geroux had Gun Runner positioned near the middle of the pack from the start. By the half-mile pole, he was solidly in fourth place, then, hugging the rail, quickly moved to third, then second and before surging to the lead. He held off Forevamo, with Colby Hernandez aboard, down the stretch.
“The way (Gun Runner) was running gave me plenty opportunities to be where you want to be, not where the other horses give you,” Geroux said. “I was inside, and he had a very good pace. From there, I wanted to make sure I didn’t get stuck.”
Amoss said going into the race that Mo Tom needed a clean trip to win. However, another horse cut in front of Mo Tom, who was cut on a leg late in the race.
“Someone came from the outside, and I lost all my momentum,” jockey Corey Lanerie said. “If that didn’t happen, I would have caught (Gun Runner) in the last couple of jumps.”
Stewart said Tom’s Ready was caught up in traffic from the start.
“(Jockey John Velazquez) said he got banged a little bit leaving, and that kind of put him on the bit a little more than he wanted to be,” Stewart said. “He had a hard time getting him to relax early in the race, and said it took his finish away from him. Not a great race, so we’ll have to recheck and see where we go from here.”
Airoforce entered with three wins in four races, with the other being a second-place finish by a neck in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. His performance Saturday left trainer Mark Casse looking for answers. After the race, he was making sure Airoforce, expected to run in the Kentucky Derby, wasn’t hurt.
“Honestly, I have no idea what happened,” Casse said. “We’re just back at the barn, he seems OK. (Jockey Julien Leparoux) said he was happy with him at the half-mile pole, and he stuck his head up and quit. So, Julien just eased off of him.”
Hernandez praised his Forevamo’s heart, saying “he just kept grinding and tried the whole way for us.”
Stall understandably was very happy with the performnace of Forevamo, a 12-1 shot. It likely puts him in the Louisiana Derby on March 26, a good performance away from a possible start in the Kentucky Derby.
“He acted like a horse who was trying to step it up, and he sure did,” Stall said. “Where that puts us, I don’t know. At least we guessed right this time.”
Geroux’s win aboard Gun Runner, along with one in the Duncan F. Kenner on Cinco Charlie, gave Asmussen/Geroux two stakes wins Saturday. Geroux also picked up another in the $125,000 Fair Grounds Handicap aboard Chocolate Ride, trained by Brad Cox.
“The one I thought I was going to win, the most easiest (the Rachel Alexandra), I didn’t win,” Geroux said. “That’s why you need to be in it to win it, you know.”