NEW ORLEANS -- Steve Asmussen's far-flung stable is loaded with talented 3-year-old fillies this winter, but on a day when the filly Stageplay misfired as the odds-on favorite in the Rachel Alexandra Stakes at Fair Grounds, it was the 3-year-old colt Gun Runner who hit the target for Asmussen. Getting a great trip under Florent Geroux, Gun Runner beat Forevamo and tough-luck Mo Tom to win the Grade 2, $400,000 Risen Star Stakes, landing a spot in the Kentucky Derby if he can make it there.
"He's a very talented horse and we're very excited to have him," Asmussen said. "I think you can look at him physically and tell he's still in the development phase, and we're hopeful he could have a huge year."
Gun Runner earned 50 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby and now has a total of 51, currently the leading point total ahead of Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Nyquist. If all goes well, Gun Runner will have one more start, in the Louisiana Derby on March 26, before going on to Churchill Downs.
"We feel he's developing a lot right now and not moving him around a lot is a good idea. Just a couple races, with how generous he trains, should be enough," Asmussen said. "He got a little late today, but we've got a bridge between now and [the Kentucky Derby] and hopefully that will answer the question."
Gun Runner became the third horse from the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last fall at Churchill Downs, in which he finished a fading fourth in the slop, to subsequently win a significant stakes race, joining Mor Spirit and Mo Tom. But the KJC winner, Airoforce, floundered Saturday making his first start on a fast dirt track, checking in 10th as the 8-5 favorite.
"It was pretty obvious -- he ran terrible," said trainer Mark Casse. "Julien [Leparoux] said he was going along good, put his head up, and just stopped going. He pulled up fine."
Asked if Airoforce would return to turf, over which he nearly won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, Casse said it was too soon to consider plans for the spring.
"I can't even think about that right now," he said.
Mo Tom had the race's hard-luck story. Last early as Candy My Boy laid down a wicked pace, going his first quarter-mile in 22.95 seconds and a half in 46.38, Mo Tom started moving at the half-mile pole, jockey Corey Lanerie squeezing through a hole at the top of the stretch, but getting stopped badly at about the eighth pole when tiring Bistraya drifted inside. Mo Tom, long-legged and far from push-button, still gathered himself and was back at the leaders, finishing an onrushing third and galloping out in front. Trainer Tom Amoss said Mo Tom sustained a cut to his right-front leg when Bistraya hit him, but that the wound appeared superficial and was unlikely to cost Mo Tom any training.
"I was coming fast," Lanerie said. "Definitely, I thought he was the best horse today. He galloped out so good. I can't wait til the races get longer for this horse."
Candy My Boy stayed on bravely to finish fourth, three-quarters of a length behind Mo Tom and 7-1/2 in front of fifth-place Zapperini.
Forevamo, a 40-1 shot, followed Gun Runner much of the trip and turned in the best performance of his career to get second, a half-length behind Gun Runner and one length in front of Mo Tom.
"He just kept trying, trying, trying," said trainer Al Stall. "We thought we saw that in his last race, putting everything together. We're happy."
Forevamo earned 20 Derby qualifying points, which alone could be enough to get him into the 20-horse field. Mo Tom added to his total with 10 points and now has a total of 22. Expect to see the first four finishers Saturday back for the $1 million Louisiana Derby next month.
The top four home had one thing in common -- all raced inside on a day when the rail at Fair Grounds was golden in dirt races. Geroux, who won the Fair Grounds Handicap with Chocolate Ride, steered straight to the fence, with Colby Hernandez on Forevamo following him all the way around.
"The way my horse is doing and the way he's traveling gives you plenty of opportunity to put him where you want to be," said Geroux. "He broke sharp, and I wanted to make sure I cut the corner and save ground, because you don't want to be outside today," Geroux said. "We knew he was a nice horse, and it was nice to see him go out and do it."
Gun Runner ran 1-1/16 miles in 1:43.94 and paid $12.20. Asmussen trains the colt for owners Ron Winchell and Three Chimneys Farm, and Gun Runner, a compact, athletic chestnut colt, won for the third time in four starts, his fourth in the KJC slop his lone defeat. Gun Runner is by Candy Ride and is the first foal to race out of the Giants Causeway mare Quiet Giant, whose best win came in the Grade 3 Molly Pitcher Stakes. He was bred by the Besilu Stables of Benjamin Leon. Asmussen and Winchell went down the Derby path via the Fair Grounds in 2008 with Pyro, who swept the stakes for 3-year-olds here before finishing eighth in the Derby.