Winchell Thoroughbreds’ homebred colt Gunite had been highly regarded since his debut back in late April at Churchill Downs but had yet to put everything together for Steve Asmussen, who became the all-time winningest North American trainer on Aug. 7.
That changed in a big way for Gunite in the $300,000 Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes on Saratoga Race Course’s Sept. 6 closing Labor Day card, where he shot clear in early stretch under Ricardo Santana Jr. and rolled to a 5 ¾-length victory over odds-on favorite Wit.
The son of 2007 Horse of the Year Gun Runner had hit the board in all four of his starts and entered the Hopeful off of a runner-up effort behind High Oak in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special Stakes Presented by Miller Lite at the Spa on Aug. 14. Nevertheless, he was sent off as the 11.60-1 fourth betting choice in the Hopeful behind unbeaten Sanford Stakes winner Wit at 0.65-1, High Oak at 2.90-1, and Delaware Park shipper Defend at 7.80-1.
Gunite exchanged bumps with a rival breaking out of post 3 and was near the back of the pack early, but he recovered to move up along the inside and contest the pace with longshot Headline Report as the field entered the turn, with Defend close behind. Gunite took a short lead through the turn after a going half-mile in :44.49, and Santana gave him his cue entering the stretch.
Wit, who stumbled badly at the start, had rallied three-wide to loom a threat, but Gunite shook clear in upper stretch and widened his advantage to win easily. Gunite covered seven furlongs in 1:23.08 on a main track rated as good.
“I loved how he went through the wire. He didn’t get away great today,” Asmussen said. “Ricardo said there was just a little bit of bumping. Going 22 and 1 to 44 and 2, and to look how he did it to the wire, it’s going to be exciting going forward. I was concerned we weren’t where we expected to be in the first hundred yards. But I watched the race from up the stretch and Ricardo, coming into the stretch, moved his hands a bit but had him plenty gathered up. I felt really good then.”
“He’s a really nice horse,” Santana said. “He can go to the lead, he can come from behind. He can do whatever you want. Today, I decided to take him back. [Defend] tried to blow the turn a little bit, so the rail opened. I made my move, and he was making his move by himself. I was really comfortable with him the whole race. He’s getting better and better and better.”
Santana and Asmussen teamed up to win their second Grade 1 at Saratoga in just under 24 hours, following Echo Zulu’s win in the Spinaway Stakes. That filly is also by freshman sire Gun Runner, and is co-owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds.
Wit finished a clear second, three lengths in front of longshot Kevin’s Folly, who edged High Oak by a half-length for third.
“He got beat by a nice horse,” said Irad Ortiz Jr., who rode Wit. “He stumbled a little bit at the beginning and he tried hard to overcome that. I had to hustle him and ask him to get position to get there on time, but it was too much. It looks like he can [stretch out].”
Gunite, who made his first three starts at Churchill Downs and broke his maiden in the last of those on June 26, improved his career record to two wins, two seconds and one third through five starts with earnings of $293,988.
“I love him for more 2-year-old races this year,” Asmussen said. “We know what we want his next two races to be and we feel really good about them. The Champagne [Stakes at Belmont Park on Oct. 3] and the [TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance at Del Mar on Nov. 5] are what we’re hoping his next two races are. I love his style for the Juvenile. He’s going to travel and we’ll try to take it. We’re very proud of him.”