As a writer, I know that there are many endings. The joyous, the sorrowful; the bitter or sweet (sometimes both in tandem).
But as Jane Austen wrote in her novel Mansfield Park, “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore every body, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.”
I much prefer a happy ending.
When I was thirteen years old, I was in love. I had several human crushes, naturally, but the boy of my heart was not a boy at all, but a burly chestnut horse by the name of Curlin.
I had been skeptical of Curlin at first, especially going into the Kentucky Derby of 2007, where the lightly-raced colt faced his first real test. But he soon won me over with a heart-pounding photo finish victory in the Preakness, and when he splashed home to take the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Monmouth Park by open lengths, I knew I was hooked.
His four-year-old season, 2008, was one I’ll never forget. While many eyes were, and rightfully so, upon Triple Crown hopeful Big Brown, I kept most of my focus on Curlin, who had blossomed into a mature and seasoned racehorse.
He first went to the desert, where he took down the lucrative Dubai World Cup in a performance that still gives me chills to this day, upon watching the replay. He returned home for several victories in Grade 1 races over the main track and even gave turf a try, finishing a valiant third to seasoned grass runners.
In early autumn, Curlin romped down the stretch to take the Jockey Club Gold Cup and became the richest racehorse in American history, the first to earn more than $10 million in purses. California Chrome and Arrogate have since surpassed his record, but Curlin was, and will always be, the first.
The Breeders’ Cup approached, and my hopes were high that the colt could become only the second horse ever to win two editions of the Classic; only the mighty Tiznow had done so. This was his chance for a storybook ending to a marvelous career. It was a solid but not impossible field, though it was over a synthetic racing surface, which threw a new variable into the mix.
Valiant Curlin tried. He tried hard. He hit the lead at the top of the stretch, and I thought we were fine. But Raven’s Pass and Henrythenavigator, contenders from Europe, relished the synthetic surface, and surged past my champion for the top two spots. Tiago closed late to shut Curlin out of the trifecta completely.
I was devastated. After such a great season, to end on this note was anticlimactic, to say the least. They say time heals all wounds, but I still feel the sting of that loss.
Years went by. Horses came and went. Even the Triple Crown, which some had thought impossible in the modern era, was captured once again. And then came another chestnut colt, conditioned by the same man who had trained Curlin to all those victories, Steve Asmussen. The young horse was a strong Triple Crown contender, though never captured a jewel himself, and managed a placing in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.
Enter Gun Runner.
Maybe it’s the white bridle and braided mane that Asmussen runners so often sport, or his bright chestnut color, so similar to one I’d seen before. Maybe it was the record he put together at four that gave me deja vu. But as I watched this horse surge to the top of the rankings as his main rival faltered through the summer, I began to have vivid memories of the halcyon days of Curlin’s 2008 campaign.
Gun Runner, though second in Dubai, captured the Stephen Foster upon returning from overseas, just as Curlin had. He put together several victories over older horses, including in the Woodward Stakes, which Curlin had also won. And he went into the Breeders’ Cup Classic off this record favored–just like Curlin.
I was nervous. I had grown attached, by virtue of all these similarities to the colt I loved long ago, to this racehorse. To see another loss after such a marvelous campaign–not to mention enduring several such losses by other fan favorites in other Breeders’ Cup races that day–would be a punch in the gut.
I wanted a happy ending this time.
As the gates opened, and Gun Runner surged to the lead, I wasn’t sure I would get one. The fractions were fast, so fast. I had seen pacesetters fizzle out in several races prior on the card. This race was a mile and a quarter, and, at least by raw numbers, Gun Runner was going too fast.
He hit the far turn in front, but well-regarded Collected was breathing down his neck. “This is it,” I thought. “This is the Raven’s Pass moment.” I gritted my teeth and waited for the agony of defeat.
But something happened, something else: Gun Runner fought back.
The chestnut colt dug in, surging again past Collected and beginning to draw away from his competitors. The seasoned four-year-old would simply not allow anyone to pass. I clapped, I cheered, I yelled at my television until hoarse.
And as Asmussen’s white-bridled copper star sailed beneath the wire at Del Mar, it was a well-deserved happy ending for this horse I had grown to admire–and vindication for Curlin and the loss I had felt so acutely long ago.
Congratulations to Winchell Thoroughbreds & Three Chimneys Farm, Florent Geroux, and Steve Asmussen on their victory with Gun Runner. He is a son of Lane’s End stallion Candy Ride out of the Giant’s Causeway mare Quiet Giant and bred in Kentucky by Besilu Stables, LLC.