On Sunday, it was Echo Zulu.
On Monday, it was simply an echo.
Gunite shook off a little bit of a slow start and won the Hopeful by 5 3/4 lengths on closing day of the 153rd Saratoga Race Course season, giving Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen his fifth Grade I victory during a meet in which he also broke the North American record for all-time career victories.
If the Hopeful seemed like a moment of deja vu, that’s because it was.
For the second day in a row, a 2-year-old sired by Asmussen’s 2017 Horse of the Year, Gun Runner, won a Grade I stakes at Saratoga, following a dominating performance by Echo Zulu in the Spinaway.
Echo Zulu also had to overcome a little bit of an awkward start, and also won by open lengths. Both were ridden by Ricardo Santana Jr., Asmussen’s first-call jockey.
Asmussen is the first trainer to sweep the Spinaway and Hopeful in the same meet since D. Wayne Lukas did it in 1995 with Golden Attraction and Hennessy.
The Hopeful actually completed a three-day Grade I roll for the trainer and jockey, who also teamed up to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup with Max Player on Saturday.
“One would’ve been great, but three is just unbelievable,” Asmussen said.
Wit, an impressive Sanford winner on opening weekend who had won his first two career starts by a combined 14 lengths, had an even worse start than Gunite did, kicking himself in the back of his left front hoof in the process as the 3-5 betting favorite.
He did well to come back from last place to finish second.
“He grabbed himself, which probably compromised him,” trainer Todd Pletcher said. “I don’t know, it’s only a couple races after they started harrowing the track, but it seemed to be fairly kind to speed. I thought he put in a pretty sustained run from a tough spot to come from.
“He took a decent chunk out of both quarters. I’m not saying he felt it during the race, but it was a result of stumbling away from there.”
That perhaps deprived fans of seeing a dramatic stretch duel, but Gunite was impressive by himself, rolling through a fast first quarter-mile in 22.23 after Santana got him hustled up from the slow start, then a half-mile in 44.49.
Another echo to Echo Zulu’s Spinaway: she went through the quarter in 22.07 and the half in 44.73, finishing seven furlongs in 1:22.51. Gunite covered the same distance in 1:23.08.
“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.”
The multiple “betters” was appropriate, since Gunite has been busier than a typical 2-year-old, needing three races to break his maiden, then finishing second to High Oak in the Saratoga Special on Aug. 14.
Asmussen had no qualms about wheeling Gunite right back three weeks later in a Grade I, because he could see the improvement.
“This is a horse everybody would dream to have,” he said. “We were aggressive with him early, and he ran solid. And he has responded from his races with doing better. He is a well-seasoned 2-year-old, to say the least, with this being his fifth run, and only getting better.
“We talk about it all the time, we’ve been aggressive with him, and he’s put on weight all the time. You’ve witnessed some of his works, and we’ve been thrilled with how he’s doing. Even this morning, we were saying it wouldn’t surprise if he could win.”
He said that although Gunite’s pedigree suggests sprinting, he should get distance endurance from his sire, who swept the Whitney and Woodward at Saratoga during his Horse of the Year campaign.
Perhaps more importantly, Gunite seems to have inherited his father’s competitiveness when race day rolls around.
“As much pressure as we’ve put on him every time, you’re just really anxious, when we first ran the Gun Runners, for them to look well,” Asmussen said. “You want everybody to feel about them the way you do, and you want it to show that way. So put an undue pressure on him, and he accepted it.
“That’s Gun Runner’s greatest quality. The bigger the moment, the cooler he was. And like today, he was cool, babies all over the place, so just take him out in the middle, put a saddle on him and let him go take care of business.”
Also on the Hopeful card, Tell Your Daddy got to the front right out of the starting gate under John Velazquez and stayed there to win the Grade II Bernard Baruch at a mile and a sixteenth on the Mellon Turf Course.
Trainer Tom Morley said he claimed the 5-year-old gelding out of a race at Fair Grounds in January with just this sort of scenario in mind, and it finally came to fruition in the Bernard Baruch after four straight losses in stakes races, including a second to Flavius in the Lure earlier in the meet.
The field was reduced to four when morning-line favorite En Wye Cee, trained by Todd Pletcher, scratched late.
“We were going to try and go to the lead anyway, but Todd coming out was a big help in terms of the fact that we thought we’d be able to clear,” Morley said. “I wasn’t going to give Johnny any instructions, but Jay [Flying P Stables owner Jason Provenzano] and I had discussed the fact when he rode him last time, I’d love to see what he could do on the front end in one of these races.
“En Wye Cee coming out probably helped our cause as well, and it’s a yielding turf course and hard to close. I was very dubious about how he would handle this ground. He’s run very well on very fast ground, but he has got some form on yielding turf.”
“Last time, he ran a winning race and ran a good race, but the other horse that day went to the lead and kept running,” Velazquez said. “Today, our plan was to go to the lead and hope to hold off the other horses, and he did.
“The turf is soft. You have to expect that with the rain we just got. I was a little concerned. I was looking at his soft turf and yielding turf form and he was OK. But you just never know. When he ran on soft turf it was in shorter races. Going two turns helped him today, too.”
The Bernard Baruch was the first of three victories on the card for the Hall of Fame jockey, who came into closing day with 15 wins for the meet.
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