When the Borges Torrealba family made a significant investment in the famed Kentucky nursery Three Chimneys Farm in November 2012, it sent out a bold statement of intent. The Midway farm was synonymous with Robert Clay and his family, rising from a small boarding operation launched in 1972 to a major stallion station under whose custodianship it had stood Seattle Slew, Dynaformer and Rahy. The Borges Torrealba family were already major players in their own right in Brazil under their Stud TNT banner but such an investment in Kentucky, which deepened further the following year with a full acquisition of the farm, told the world that here was an ambitious owner determined to play at the top table in North America.
In little time, the move was rewarded, with the farm going on to celebrate Group or Grade 1 winners such as Volatile, Carina Mia, Restless Rider, Guarana and Skitter Scatter, the 2018 Moyglare Stud Stakes winner who was bred in partnership with Airlie Stud.
However, it must come as an immense source of satisfaction that within a decade of its new history, it is also home to one of the most exciting young stallions in North America, one that is already eliciting comparisons with Danzig, Mr. Prospector and the like.
It is no exaggeration to say that Gun Runner has exploded onto the scene. Out of a first crop of 127 foals, the son of Candy Ride is already the sire of five Grade 1 winners, 12 black-type winners and 22 black-type horses. He was an immediate success, siring a brace of two-year-old Grade 1 winners last year at Saratoga in Echo Zulu, who took the Spinaway Stakes en route to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, and Gunite, winner of the Hopeful Stakes. With fellow Saratoga Graded stakes winners Wicked Halo and Pappacap contributing to Gun Runner’s prize- money haul of over $4.2 million, the stallion ended 2021 as the overwhelming champion North American first-crop sire – and with a record total.
Echo Zulu ended the year as champion two-year-old filly, yet remarkably even better was to come. In April, his son Cyberknife captured the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby while $1.7 million two-year-old Taiba won the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby on his second start.
While those colts were down in the field in the Kentucky Derby, they rebounded to run one-two in the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, with Cyberknife outbattling Taiba for a head victory. In the meantime, another son, Early Voting, had tasted Classic success in the Preakness Stakes.
Thus with only one crop of three- year-olds on the ground, Gun Runner sits within the top six North American sires thanks to almost $7.5 million in earnings. Making it all the more rewarding for Three Chimneys is that such success is being achieved with a horse who is more or less a home-grown product.
Gun Runner was a yearling when Three Chimneys entered into a partnership with his breeder, Benjamin Leon’s Besilu Stables. Besilu had been an active player at the Edward ‘Ned’ Evans dispersal at Keeneland in November 2011, coming away with $11.4 million worth of stock. Among the most desirable Evans families on offer was that belonging to Quiet Dance, the dam of champion Saint Liam. Leon duly aggressively targeted the line, paying $3 million and $2.6 million for her daughters Quiet Giant, a Grade 2 winner, and Miss Besilu, then a foal, as well as $800,000 for the then 18-year-old Quiet Dance herself.
Quiet Giant was sent to Candy Ride and the resulting foal was Gun Runner.
“Gun Runner was a yearling when Three Chimneys acquired the Besilu package,” says Doug Cauthen, vice- chairman of Three Chimneys. “That included around 50 horses in total – mares, yearlings, foals and a few racehorses. Acquiring that many important families in one group was a game changer for Three Chimneys, and sped up the development of the broodmare band dramatically. Ron Winchell bought into Gun Runner in April of his two-year-old year and he was raced as a 50/50 partnership.”
Gun Runner was sent to Steve Asmussen and developed into an admirably consistent racehorse as the earner of $16 million during a career highlighted by victories in the Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup, Breeders’ Cup Classic, Woodward Stakes, Witney Handicap and Stephen Foster Handicap. In 19 starts from two to five, he finished out of the frame only once.
“He was a very good-looking yearling, so he was appraised accordingly in the package,” recalls Cauthen. “But as he developed in his early two-year-old year in Ocala, and especially after Steve Asmussen and his team got their hands on him, the feedback was really positive. When Steve and [assistant] Scott Blasi are both talking positively about a horse before he’s run, it’s a good sign.”
Gun Runner isn’t a rags-to-riches success. Installed at $70,000 for his debut season in 2018, he was deservedly popular from the outset. But in return, he has certainly made the most of the opportunities afforded to him.
Fittingly, Asmussen is faring particularly well with his progeny, with his barn containing Echo Zulu and Wicked Halo in addition to the minor stakes winners Red Run, Society, Optionality and Concept. All bar Society are owned by Ron Winchell’s Winchell Thoroughbreds.
“He was popular,” says Cauthen, looking back to that first season. “There were plenty of mares to choose from but there definitely was extra credit given to mares with speed. Young mares were also popular, though it’s clear that a good older mare can produce a star, as Echo Zulu’s dam [Letgomyecho, who was foaled in 2002] proved – but she did also have that speed to complement him.
“Most of Gun Runner’s progeny can really walk – they glide across the ground and have leverage behind. They also usually have plenty of length, and Gun Runner adds some altitude to most of the mares’ progeny.”
He adds: “It seemed that all the pre- trainers who had Gun Runner’s loved their temperament and will to do the job, so by February last year the reports were positive.
“Then when Taiba breezed like a beast at the Fasig-Tipton Gulfstream Sale and brought $1.7 million [from Gary Young on behalf of Zedan Racing Stables], the buzz was all there. He then proceeded to keep having good breezers and sale figures at all the sales, and it was off to the races.
“They want to do the job, they have the physical attributes to actually be able to do the job and they are seldom overly heavy horses, so they do seem sound. And no doubt they showed earlier speed than was expected. This year, people will likely be more patient and play it a bit safer, because when you think you might have a good one, the record shows that they could even get better with age, so there is no rush.”
While it remains early days, Gun Runner appears to be clicking with a variety of sire lines. However, it certainly helps from Ron Winchell’s perspective that he is proving so effective with champion sire Tapit, a horse raced and subsequently used at stud to great effect by the owner.
“He clearly loves Tapit, and that’s a great perk for Ron absolutely,” says Cauthen. “But Gun Runner does seem to love other A.P. Indy lines as well and clearly he likes Storm Cat. We believe he just likes an influx of speed to complement the speed he already had and we have focused on giving extra credit to that attribute when looking at mares.
“But we also like to let good breeders do what they think will work because they know their mares better than we do – we simply make suggestions of trends we see so collectively we can get the best product and best runners on the ground.”
The question now is whether Gun Runner can transcend the different racing nations.
As a son of the Argentinean-bred Candy Ride, he belongs to the Fappiano branch of the Mr. Prospector sire line, one that traditionally has been more at home in America than Europe. However, American Pharaoh is one descendant of Fappiano to have enjoyed success in Europe as well as Japan while there are also various turf elements within Gun Runner’s female family, notably his close relation Funtastic, a Grade 1 winner on the grass who also stands at Three Chimneys. His first crop are now two- year-olds.
“There has been good support from Japan and some from England, Ireland and France,” says Cauthen. “His success this year has clearly spurred on international interest and he has plenty of support coming from Australia now for a limited southern-hemisphere offering.”
Gun Runner now sits in elite company. He was responsible for the $2.4 million sale-topper and a $1.4 million colt at the recent Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Sale, both of whom were bought by M.V. Magnier and associates, while Grade 1 winners and/or producers such as Take Charge Brandi, Stopchargingmaria, Restless Rider, Untapable, Dream Tree, Drumette [dam of champion Monomoy Girl], Chasing Yesterday, Groupie Doll and Amour d’Ete [dam of Early Voting] were among his book this year.
It’s also safe to say that fellow Three Chimneys stallion Sharp Azteca is also in line for an uptick in book quality following his swift start at stud.
Unlike Gun Runner, Sharp Azteca is making his name off a lowly first-season fee of $10,000, which dropped to $5,000 this year. By Giant’s Causeway’s brother Freud, he was a Grade 1-winning, hard-knocking miler and as such, has been popular for his level. So far, his progeny have been quick to come to hand and are winning; at the time of writing, he had fired in 15 winners and with stakes winners Sharp Aza Tack and Tyler’s Tribe aiding his cause, was leading the North American first-crop sires’ list ahead of Triple Crown hero Justify, who stood his debut season for $150,000.
“He was an extremely fast horse who could carry that speed at least a mile, and physically he is just a lovely specimen, with tonnes of natural muscling and great substance and balance,” says Cauthen. “He was a bit atypical for what Lexington farms often seek out nowadays but the idea was to offer something good at a lower price point that gave breeders a legitimate chance to breed a good horse.
“Priced at $10,000, he was extremely popular – once people saw him they wanted to breed to him.”
Gun Runner is extremely well represented at this month’s Keeneland September Sale as the sire of 63 entires while Sharp Azteca boasts 16. As for Three Chimneys itself, it is also poised to make an impact with a clutch of Book 1 entries that includes a Curlin granddaughter of Quiet Giant, and thus a relation to Gun Runner, a Constitution half-brother to Early Voting and a Curlin daughter of Grade 1 winner Carina Mia.
Meanwhile, it promises to be an important period for the farm’s Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice, who has a yearling crop of 155 bred in the aftermath of a first group of runners that included the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner Structor. Grade 1 sires Sky Mesa and Will Take Charge are also among the proven names on the roster while hopes run extremely high for the Grade 1-winning sprinter Volatile, a son of Violence whose first crop are foals.
“Volatile is throwing a lot of size and scope to his progeny with good strength and a strong hindquarter,” says Cauthen. “He was a brilliantly fast horse and his foals look like they’re going to be speedy types. In addition to his speed, he’s a very good-looking stallion who went through the sales ring as a yearling for $850,000 at Keeneland September. His weanlings will be ones to watch this November as they go to market.”
As any stallion master will attest, the stallion game can be extremely hard to crack. For all the groundwork laid, success is never guaranteed. Yet by the same token, a stallion can rise to the top by defying the odds. The Borges Torrealba family bought Three Chimneys with a vision and now with Gun Runner in the stallion barn, the farm is rapidly heading back towards the glory days of Seattle Slew and Dynaformer.
“Yes, the Torrealba family set out with a mission and they are achieving many of the goals on their list,” says Cauthen. “But there is still plenty more to do and everyone is hard at work to look forward, never back.”