CHARLES TOWN — One of those thoroughbreds whose credentials might be enough to warrant a decision by Chad Brown to bring him to Charles Town for Saturday’s Grade II “Classic” is the attention-getting colt named Last Gunfighter.
It wasn’t that long ago when the dark brown four-year-old wasn’t much more than a maiden possibly headed to the lower ranks of winless claimers.
His only four races had not produced even one win. His owner, John Gunther, could sense there was something wrong. If Last Gunfighter was healthy and fit, where else could the owner search for reasons as to why he wasn’t performing very well?
Gunther had a medium-sized son of sire First Samurai and dam Saratoga Cat. Gunther had supervised the breeding of those two. First Samurai is the son of the colossal sire, Giant’s Causeway. And Giant’s Causeway is the son of record-setter, Storm Cat. Saratoga Cat is the daughter of Sir Cat and the granddaughter of Storm Cat.
It was a background full of relatives whose records as sires were among the top 5 percent of all time.
Why wasn’t Last Gunfighter showing anything?
Gunther decided to change trainers.
He brought in Chad Brown, a one-time understudy of Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel. Brown had ventured out on his own in 2007 and has saddled two Breeders’ Cup champions since going it alone.
Rajiv Maragh became the jockey.
Gunther’s changes were in place when Last Gunfighter stopped losing races.
After an 0-for-4 start, a Brown-instituted race schedule began with Last Gunfighter going against a field of others he might master. When he won that first try under Brown, he not only shed his “maiden” moniker but showed he might some day reach the niche the owner believed possible for a grandson of Giant’s Causeway.
Three more races were scheduled against thoroughbreds not bound for graded stakes competition. Last Gunfighter won all three times. Two of them were ordinary stakes — the Raymond Earl at Aqueduct and the Evening Attire, also at Aqueduct.
Brown thought it was time to wade into graded stakes waters.
He entered the streaking colt in the Grade III, $150,000 Excelsior Stakes at Aqueduct in New York. After eight lifetime starts, it was time to see what might be accomplished in a graded stakes. That race was run on March 23.
Breaking a step slow in the 1 1/8-miles race, jockey Maragh let the would-be pacesetters go on off toward the lead and pace they preferred. Last Gunfighter settled into sixth place along the rail so he might save ground and then make a move toward the lead.
After more than six furlongs of waiting, Maragh wanted to go forward when he neared the top of the stretch.
But his options were few. Or none.
He was still on the rail and two others were impeding any progress Maragh sought.
Finally, the leader, Joan’s Choice, moved far enough away from the rail that Maragh and Last Gunfighter slid through and had the lead.
At the wire, they were two lengths in front. And had posted the fifth straight win (against no losses) as a comfortable and successful twosome.
Gunther and Brown have nominated Last Gunfighter to the Charles Town Classic on Saturday. Should they follow through and bring him to the Grade I event with the $1.5 million purse, it would be many long, uphill steps to meet a quality of competition he has never faced.
Only 10 horses can face the starter in the Charles Town Classic. That’s all the starting gate will hold. The much tighter turns and shorter home stretch and backside would be new to the colt that has raced at much larger tracks.
Should Last Gunfighter actually be in the field, his odds will be long and his surroundings all new for a thoroughbred which lost his first four races.