While the Eclipse Awards for two-year-olds prompt us to look ahead to the 2018 Kentucky Derby (G1) and Kentucky Oaks (G1), several horses up for championships in other age groups make us look back to past runnings of the Churchill Downs classics.
Chief among them is Gun Runner, the third-place finisher in the 2016 Derby, who developed into a world-class beast as a four-year-old. A lock for champion older dirt male, the Steve Asmussen trainee is just as certain to take home the golden statuette as 2017 Horse of the Year.
Five-for-six in 2017, with his lone loss a second to Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup (G1), Gun Runner maintained his high performance level as that rival lost his form. He returned from Dubai to dominate the Stephen Foster (G1) at Churchill by seven lengths, turned the prestigious Whitney (G1)/Woodward (G1) double at Saratoga by a combined margin of 15 1/2 lengths, and clinched the Horse of the Year title with a front-running display in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1).
Gun Runner’s connections are accordingly finalists in their own categories as well – Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm as his co-owners, breeder Besilu Stables, and trainer Asmussen, although those human awards are much tougher to predict. Plans call for the son of Candy Ride to race once more, in the $16 million Pegasus World Cup (G1) at Gulfstream Park on January 27, two days after the Eclipse Awards are bestowed. Then he’ll retire to stud at Three Chimneys.
Reigning Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming and third-placer Battle of Midway are both finalists in the three-year-old male category, but late-developing West Coast is virtually assured of besting them for the Eclipse Award.
Always Dreaming peaked early in the season, compiling a four-race winning streak featuring the Florida Derby (G1) and crowned by the “Run for the Roses.” Yet he then regressed in the Preakness (G1), Jim Dandy (G2), and Travers (G1). Battle of Midway, in contrast, was still developing in the spring, and finished on a high note to beat older horses in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1). We won’t see Battle of Midway on track again, since he’s been retired to stud at WinStar Farm, but Always Dreaming will be back to restore his luster in a 2018 campaign.
West Coast, not ready in time for the Kentucky Derby, came on in the second half with major wins in the Travers and Pennsylvania Derby (G1). He also fared best of the sophomores when third to older rivals Gun Runner and Collected in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. West Coast will get another crack at them in the Pegasus.
Kentucky Oaks alumnae are likely to garner champion three-year-old filly and champion older mare honors.
Reigning Oaks queen Abel Tasman was the most accomplished filly in her division, adding the Acorn (G1) and Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) to her resume. She concluded 2017 with a half-length second to the older Forever Unbridled in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1).
Forever Unbridled had upset Songbird in the Personal Ensign (G1) this summer, and her three-for-three mark in 2017 should get her the nod for champion older dirt female. Interestingly, both Forever Unbridled and fellow finalist Stellar Wind had competed in the 2015 Kentucky Oaks, where Stellar Wind was fourth and Forever Unbridled 11th.
The Eclipse Award champions will be announced on the evening
of January 25 at Gulfstream Park.
Gun Runner photo courtesy Breeders' Cup Ltd/Eclipse Sportswire