Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Gunite provided Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen his third consecutive score in the Grade 1, $300,000 Hopeful Stakes, a seven-furlong sprint for juveniles, on Sept. 6, closing day of the Saratoga Race Course meet.
Asmussen, who won the Hopeful with Basin (2019) and Jackie’s Warrior (2020), was joined by Gunite jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. in securing their respective fifth Grade 1 win of the 40-day Spa summer meet.
Wit, the 3-5 mutuel favorite out of a convincing score in the Grade 3 Sanford here July 17, stumbled at the break and dropped back to ninth in the 11-horse field as Headline Report led through an opening quarter-mile in :22.23 on the good and harrowed main track.
Gunite, runner-up to Hopeful-rival High Oak last out in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special, was jostled at the start exiting post 3 but quickly rushed into contention by Santana, Jr. to mark the half-mile in :44.49.
Wit, with Irad Ortiz, Jr. up, advanced into fourth position through the turn as Gunite put away pace-pressers Headline Report and Defend, opening up a 2 1/2-length advantage at the stretch call with High Oak launching his bid from fifth and Kevin’s Folly, hugging the rail under Jose Lezcano, advancing with menace.
Gunite continued to find more down the lane under Santana, Jr.’s right-handed encouragement and drew off impressively to win by 5 3/4-lengths in a final time of 1:23.08. Wit stayed on strong to complete the exacta by three-lengths over Kevin’s Folly.
“I loved how he went through the wire. He didn’t get away great today. Ricardo said there was just a little bit of bumping,” Asmussen said. “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.
“It’s state of mind,” added Asmussen regarding Gunite’s development. “We’ve been aggressive with him and he’s put on weight and gotten stronger the whole time. We’ve been through the roof with how well he’s doing.”
The Asmussen-trained and Santana, Jr. piloted Echo Zulu provided Gun Runner – the 2017 Horse of the Year under Asmussen’s care – with his first Grade 1-winner as a sire by capturing Sunday’s Grade 1 Spinaway at the Spa and Gunite doubled that number with a dominant Hopeful score.
Asmussen said Gunite, who graduated at third asking sprinting six furlongs at Churchill Downs on June 26, improved with added ground.
“The distance; it was a little too short,” Asmussen said of Gunite’s first two starts. “But we were anxious to get the Gun Runners running. He’s from a solid sprint family of the Winchells with Gun Runner giving him some endurance. But he’s very durable, mentally and physically. As much pressure as we put on him, he accepted it.”
Ortiz, Jr. tipped his cap to the winner after a troubled trip aboard the previously undefeated Wit.
“He got beat by a nice horse. He stumbled a little bit at the beginning and he tried hard to overcome that,” Ortiz, Jr. said. “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).”
Pletcher said Wit performed well under difficult circumstances.
“He probably compromised himself,” Pletcher said. “I thought he put in a good, sustained run. It was a tough spot to come from.
“He took a decent chunk out of both quarters,” added Pletcher. “I’m not saying he felt it during the race. It was the result of stumbling away from there.”
Asmussen became North American racing’s all-time winningest conditioner in August when Stellar Tap won on Whitney Day to provide the Hall of Famer his 9,446th win, eclipsing the mark of 9,445 victories held by the late Dale Baird.
The 55-year-old Asmussen, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016, enjoyed a stellar Spa summer meet, additionally winning Grade 1s with Jackie’s Warrior (H. Allen Jerkens Memorial), Yaupon (Forego) and Max Player (Jockey Club Gold Cup).
Santana, Jr, who was aboard for the Grade 1 wins with Yaupon and Max Player, also engineered a top-flight victory with Maracuja in the Coaching Club American Oaks.
The 28-year-old Santana, Jr. said he was in awe of his accomplishments at Saratoga this summer.
“It’s special. Saratoga is one of the best tracks in North America. I’m really blessed. Five Grade 1 wins in one meet is unreal,” Santana, Jr. said.
Out of the stakes winning Cowboy Cal mare Simple Surprise, Gunite, a Kentucky homebred, banked $165,000 in victory while improving his record to 5-2-2-1. He returned $25.20 for a $2 win ticket.
Asmussen said Gunite will now target the one-mile Grade 1, $500,000 Champagne on Oct. 2 at Belmont Park, which offers a “Win and You’re In” berth to the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in November at Del Mar.
“I love him for more 2-year-old races this year. We know what we want his next two races to be and we feel really good about them,” Asmussen said. “The Champagne and the Breeders’ Cup 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.”