03/22/2015 8:17PM

Firing Line cruises to dominant Sunland Derby victory

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Firing Line wins the Sunland Derby by 14 1/4 lengths Sunday at Sunland Park.

SUNLAND PARK, N.M. – The strength and depth of California’s Kentucky Derby prospects looks even better when those horses ship out of town, and Firing Line certainly did his part to gloss that image Sunday with a runaway 14 1/4-length victory in the Grade 3, $800,000 Sunland Derby here at Sunland Park.

The competition Firing Line faced was significantly inferior to what he had gone against in Southern California, where he dropped narrow decisions to the highly regarded Dortmund in his last two starts. That form made him the 1-5 favorite against six rivals, and he ran to those odds while earning a $400,000 payday and a berth in the May 2 Kentucky Derby with the 50 points that went to the winner.

“Well, we’re in,” said winning jockey Gary Stevens. “I’m in a great spot.”

Firing Line ($2.40) completed 1 1/8 miles on the fast main track in 1:47.39, a track record. The track was fast, but this was a legitimately good race.

It was similar to what American Pharoah – another Southern California-based runner – did eight days earlier in the Rebel at Oaklawn.

Firing Line landed the rail in the field of seven. He had company early from the likes of Why Two and Malibu Mogul through an opening quarter in 22.33 seconds and a half-mile in 45.39. He put those horses away and covered six furlongs in 1:09.12, began to widen on his opposition on the far turn, and coasted home.

Where’s the Moon, last early, got up for second, 2 1/4 lengths in front of the third-place Pain and Misery. Tiznow R  J was fourth and was followed in order by Dirt Monster, Why Two, and Malibu Mogul. The last two horses were the ones who tried to go with Firing Line early. They wound up more than 30 and 57 lengths in arrears, respectively, underscoring how well Firing Line ran.

“The manner in which he pulled away shows how good a horse he is,” said Simon Callaghan, who trains Firing Line for owner Arnold Zetcher.

The post parade was a long, drawn-out affair, which tested both horses and humans. Firing Line is far better in the mornings now than he once was in terms of deportment, and Stevens said he handled the post parade “better than I did.”

“The best thing about him is his mind,” Stevens said.

Callaghan praised both Stevens and exercise rider Paul Eddery for working with Firing Line over the last few months to get him to be more cooperative. There is the theory that Firing Line is better with a target, but because of his rail draw, Stevens and Callaghan decided not to play it cute.

“We felt he was the best horse, wanted to keep it simple,” Callaghan said.

“It wasn’t ideal, being drawn inside going a mile and an eighth,” Stevens said. “It looked a lot simpler than it was. He makes easy work of it.”

Firing Line lost to Dortmund by a head in both the Los Alamitos Futurity and Robert Lewis. By shipping here, he didn’t have to run in another gut-wrencher

“He’s been battle tested with Dortmund,” Stevens said. “It’s nice to get an easy one.”

Callaghan was happy about the spacing for the Sunland Derby, which fell six weeks from the Lewis and six weeks prior to the Kentucky Derby.

“And it was nice to have an easy ship out of California,” Callaghan said. “It was nice to get away without having to go too far.”

Based on the way Firing Line has run in his last two starts, he can be trained up to a race and fire his best shot. That is the approach his connections will take toward a Kentucky Derby, which has a field that looks better and better with every passing week.