After suffering two heartbreaking losses at the hands of unbeaten Dortmund, Firing Line found an easier spot away from his nemesis in Sunday’s $800,000 Sunland Derby (G3). The path of least resistance became a confidence booster for Arnold Zetcher’s talented colt, who dusted his overmatched foes by 14 1/4 lengths.
Under a confident hand ride by Hall of Famer Gary Stevens, the 1-5 favorite appeared to be simply galloping, but he was actually motoring in a track-record 1:47.39 for 1 1/8 miles on the fast Sunland Park track. The Simon Callaghan trainee earned 50 more points toward the Kentucky Derby (G1), bringing his total up to 58 and ensuring himself a spot in the starting gate for the Run for the Roses.
Firing Line deserved to enjoy a cakewalk in the aftermath of his last two, which could have gutted such an inexperienced horse physically and psychologically. The $240,000 Keeneland April two-year-old purchase was pitched into the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) straight off a sprint maiden win. He was in the firing line throughout in that stakes and two-turn debut, forcing the pace set by Mr. Z, grabbing a slim lead, and dueling as the equine pinball between the drifting Mr. Z (who bumped him) and the massive figure of Dortmund on his outside. Despite it all, he went down fighting by a head in a track-record 1:40.86 for 1 1/16 miles.
In the rematch with Dortmund next time in the Robert B. Lewis (G2) at Santa Anita, Firing Line employed different tactics with his new rider, Gary Stevens. This time he stalked his archrival, cruised up to engage on the far turn, and appeared to be traveling the better of the two while edging clear in the stretch. But Dortmund came again on the inside and snatched the victory, again by a desperate head.
By heading out of town, Firing Line swerved a third clash with the West Coast’s leading Kentucky Derby hopeful. And by going to Sunland, he figured to have things his own way against a soft field. The most interesting of his rivals would have been Lord Nelson, winner of the seven-furlong San Vicente (G2) over Texas Red but unplaced in all three route attempts. If Lord Nelson could go the trip anywhere, it might have been Sunland, but Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert scratched him.
That left six class-challenged opponents, and Firing Line was entitled to flaunt his superiority just as he did. He almost cost himself by rearing in the gate, but thankfully the heavy favorite had time to regroup and plant all four feet on the ground before they were sent on their way. Although Why Two led in the opening strides, the rail-drawn Firing Line effortlessly vied with him through splits of :22 1/5 and :45 1/5, still on a long rein. Stevens gave him a subtle cue, and Firing Line skipped away without seeming to take a deep breath. He began to open up through six furlongs in 1:09 and cantered the rest of the way, widening his advantage.
Where’s the Moon, winner of the Mine That Bird Derby, closed from last to take second. Next came Pain and Misery, most recently seventh behind Dortmund in the San Felipe (G2). Tiznow R J, third in the Lecomte (G3) and seventh behind International Star in the Risen Star (G2), faded to fourth after attempting to chase Firing Line on the far turn. Why Two retreated to sixth of seven.
While the Sunland Derby underscores that Firing Line is a very good colt, it’s likely more an endorsement of Dortmund’s lofty status than a revelation that enhances Firing Line’s own Kentucky Derby hopes. He’s yet to find a way to beat Dortmund at 1 1/16 miles, and his prospects of turning the tables probably won’t increase over the Derby distance.
Firing Line is from the first crop of Line of David, who beat Super Saver in the 2010 Arkansas Derby (G1) but checked in a too-bad-to-be-true 18th behind him in a sloppy Kentucky Derby and never raced again. Line of David is himself by Lion Heart, who played second fiddle to Smarty Jones in the 2004 Kentucky Derby. Firing Line’s dam, Sister Girl Blues, finished second to Hall of Famer Azeri in the 2003 Vanity H. (G1) over 1 1/8 miles at Hollywood Park. There are deeper influences that could help (such as his fifth dam being Broodmare of the Year Kamar), but his brilliance so far could presage distance limitations in the Derby.
Firing Line photo credit: Coady Photography.