When owner Ron Winchell and Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen came to the Pegasus World Cup presented by Runhappy two years ago, they were armed with reigning Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and Horse of the Year Gun Runner. It’s a much different scenario this year, when they run Tenfold, who has flashed signs of being a top horse intertwined among decent efforts and some clunkers.
While the Pegasus capped a huge career that saw Gun Runner earn $15,888,550, including six G1s in his 12-for-19 record, Tenfold’s camp hopes Saturday’s $3 million Pegasus provides a breakthrough victory going forward for the 5-year-old and $968,390-earner, whose record to date is 4 for 15.
“Gun Runner was pointed for that as soon as he crossed the finish line in the Breeders’ Cup Classic,” David Fiske, the Winchell family’s long-time farm and racing manager, said of the Pegasus. “That was the goal, the target, his swansong. It was bittersweet, emotional, retiring him to stud after that race.
“Tenfold, I don’t want to say he’s an afterthought. We were thinking about it earlier last year when he won the Pimlico Special, then he didn’t go on exactly as we’d hoped and we figured he wouldn’t get an invite — and then he did. There was nothing really on his dance card, so why not?
“Every once in a while he shows an effort that encourages us. We’ve not had many horses both as encouraging and as inconsistent as him.”
While acknowledging a formidable favorite in Omaha Beach, Tenfold’s team believes their horse fits in with the rest of the field.
They’re hoping for an effort such as when Tenfold won last May’s G3 Pimlico Special and as a 3-year-old, when he won Saratoga’s G2 Jim Dandy over 2019 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Vino Russo, or when he was third by a total of three-quarters a length behind Triple Crown winner Justify in the 2018 Preakness Stakes.
“An opportunistic spot, basically is what it is, based on who is going and his ability to run in the money,” Winchell said of rerouting Tenfold to the nine-furlong Pegasus. “Obviously there’s a big favorite, but you don’t run away from one horse.
“It’s been a little frustrating from the perspective that he runs a good race and you expect him to step up. He kind of runs his race here and there. We’re hoping the here and there is Gulfstream. We’ll see. We have yet to find the key.”
The exquisitely-bred Tenfold is a son of the Asmussen-trained two-time Horse of the Year Curlin and out of mare by Winchell’s super-stallion Tapit.
Looking for a home run
“Obviously we had high hopes for him early, especially when he ran third in the Preakness,” Winchell said. “He put it all together when he won the Jim Dandy. We thought, ‘This is great. He’s back on track.’ He’s been hit and miss from there. We’re looking for the hit here — well not a hit, we’re looking for a home run.”
Unraced at two, Tenfold won his first two starts at three before a fifth in the G1 Arkansas Derby landed him in the Preakness rather than Derby. Tenfold nearly upset Derby winner Justify that day in heavy fog - and foggy sort of sums up his in-and-out career since: fifth in the Belmont, the Jim Dandy win, seventh in the Travers, seventh in last year’s G2 Oaklawn Handicap, the Pimlico Special win, then a well-beaten ninth, fourth, sixth and eighth in Graded stakes.
Tenfold got two months off, with Asmussen taking off the blinkers utilized for six races when the horse resumed racing on December 21 with a close fourth in a Fair Grounds allowance race at a mile and 70 yards. Following a chain of changes that started with Irad Ortiz Jr opting to ride Mucho Gusto over Spun to Run, Tyler Gaffalione has picked up the Pegasus mount on Tenfold.
“On his best day, he’s obviously capable of very good things,” Asmussen said. “But he has not been as consistent as we would have hoped and don’t feel he’s completely taken advantage of all the chances he’s been given. But he’s also a horse that’s an extremely good doer, a very sound horse that’s doing really well right now. With the invitation to the Pegasus in a very wide open year, excluding possibly one horse, here we go.”
If Tenfold is frustrating, give Asmussen a barnful of such horses.
“Yeah, it’s extremely frustrating that he’s so close to a million dollars,” Asmussen joked with a laugh.
But it also drives home how rare consistently excellent horses such as Gun Runner are. Co-owned by Winchell and Three Chimneys Farm, Gun Runner won his last five races, all in G1s, with the Pegasus making him the sixth-biggest money-earner in world Thoroughbred racing history.
“If you had a Gun Runner every year, Gun Runner wouldn’t be who he is,” Asmussen said. “That elite of a level of talent is so special because it doesn’t come along all the time. Very satisfying horse with that rare combination of ability, mental, intelligence, great physical specimen, he had it all. He started out a very good horse and ended up one of the all-time greats.
“He had an unbelievable mind to understand where he was at, to take his lessons and move forward. Pedigree-wise, he continued to become faster and physically he was perfect. He walked into the breeding shed as sound as he walked into the barn as a 2-year-old.
“What a special horse. His last four or five runs were ‘I dare you’ type races, ending his career with such a pinnacle. His Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar, to take no chances and just take all the running to them, with those kind of fractions and how the track was playing that week. Then to be showcased [at Three Chimneys] for his stallion season, and then go back into training and, oh, by the way, we’ll win the world’s richest horse race from the 11 hole at Gulfstream - and to win like that.”
A big week for Asmussen could get even bigger. Last Saturday at the Fair Grounds, he joined Todd Pletcher and D Wayne Lukas as the only trainers to achieve 1,000 stakes victories as Winchell’s Finite won the Silverbulletday.
With Thursday’s Eclipse Award dinner at Gulfstream Park, he’s likely to add two more champions to his resume, with Breeders’ Cup Sprint and Metropolitan Mile winner Mitole the overwhelming favorite to be crowned outstanding sprinter while also a finalist for older male and Horse of the Year. Though she was upset in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, Midnight Bisou is expected to be feted as champion older filly, with Asmussen also a finalist for North America’s outstanding trainer.