It is a common conceit of human nature that we think we know what animals are thinking. But, in the case of Chris Baker and Gun Runner, we'll give him a pass.
Baker has been part of the Gun Runner story from the beginning, from his conception to his birth to his yearling romps in a Kentucky field. It was fitting, then, that Baker was there to greet Gun Runner as the chestnut stallion arrived in Lexington on Sunday afternoon at Blue Grass Airport, bound for Three Chimneys Farm and his new career.
"He got about halfway down the ramp, stopped, and looked left and right," Baker said Monday morning. "It was like he was saying, 'Okay, where have you taken me this time?'"
Home, brother. You're home.
It was a fair question, though, if that was really what Gun Runner wondered. His career began at Churchill Downs on Sept. 11, 2015 -- a far happier reason to remember the date -- and took him to Louisiana, Kentucky, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, California, Arkansas, Dubai, and finally Florida, a road warrior to the end.
The remarkable fact that Gun Runner produced a measurably better race in each of his eight starts from late in his 3-year-old season to the dawn of age 5 was the result of precise handling of a sound horse by Steve Asmussen, assistant Scott Blasi, and their crew, who listened well and allowed the animal to tell them what he wanted to do, how much, and when.
The result was a satisfying, comprehensive champion who was promoted from within, earning every ascendant step along the way. Gun Runner was the talented prep ballplayer who had a solid college career and a smart rookie year in the pros before the pieces fell into place as the league's MVP. Anyone paying attention was never surprised.
But that was then. Even as the glow of last Saturday's definitive Pegasus performance lingers, Gun Runner is now another creature entirely. Baker, who is chief operating officer, and the rest of the team at Three Chimneys, including stallion manager Sandy Hatfield, have the job of transitioning an intensely conditioned racehorse into a cooperative stallion. And because the Pegasus sits at the threshold of breeding season, time is tight.
"It's a natural process, getting these young horses confident in the breeding process so that they do it well and in a timely manner," Baker said. "It's a process you never want to rush, but in this case you've only got two weeks to get it done. You've got to hope that you don't have any hiccups along the way."
Baker was managing Spring Hill Farm in Virginia when Quiet Giant, the dam of Gun Runner, hit the ground in 2007. Upon the death of Spring Hill owner Ned Evans, Quiet Giant was purchased in 2011 along with other Evans bloodstock by Ben Leon of Besilu Farm. When Baker moved on to WinStar Farm as general manager, Leon's breeding stock followed. Gun Runner, Quiet Giant's first foal, was born at WinStar on March 8, 2013.
"For a first foaling, the mare did great," Baker said. "She did her job through labor and contractions. He was positioned well and delivered normally. Her maternal instincts kicked in right away."
Baker took the job at Goncalo Torrealba's Three Chimneys later in 2013. Soon after, Besilu and Three Chimneys struck up a breeding stock partnership and the horses changed address. Then, rather than send the yearling son of Candy Ride to the sales ring, Three Chimneys and the Winchell Thoroughbreds of Ron Winchell sealed a deal to race him in partnership, with the understanding that Gun Runner would stand at the farm when his racing days were over.
"From the beginning, he struck me as one of those horses that had all the ingredients - the looks, the pedigree, the attitude, the athleticism," Baker said. "But to be honest about it, in groups of 60 to 120 foals, every year I'd see probably a half-dozen you can describe like that, sometimes even more. You have to wait and see if they've got the heart and the mind for it as well."
Baker brings a high bar to the party. While at the track he worked for Neil Drysdale and Richard Mandella, which put him in contact with Horses of the Year A.P. Indy and Kotashaan. Among the foals raised at Spring Hill during Baker's tenure were Horse of the Year Saint Liam and the talented Quality Road.
"I'm cautious to anoint them too early," Baker said. "There's a lot of things that can go wrong and a lot of ways to lose. And those things find most of them. That's what makes what Gun Runner's been able to accomplish so remarkable, especially those last 15 months. It sure says a lot about the horse, but it says a helluva lot about how Steve and Scott had him prepared for a peak performance race after race."
Gun Runner will be bred to about 150 mares.
"At this point, he's going to go through a physiological transformation, as they all do coming out of training into farm life," Baker said. "But the physical exercise that comes with the breeding process makes the transition easier.
"Then, when we get to the off season," Baker added, "we'll just let him be a horse and let him have that break he so richly deserves."