03/18/2015 12:55PM

Firing Line gets to play big dog in Sunland Derby

Benoit & Associates
Firing Line (left) was nipped on the line by Dortmund in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes. Firing Line shakes that rival by going to the Sunland Derby.

ARCADIA, Calif. – There might not have been a tougher beat along the Kentucky Derby trail this year than Firing Line’s in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes on Feb. 7 here at Santa Anita. Firing Line earned the fastest Beyer Speed Figure of his career and finished more than 21 lengths in front of the field, with one notable exception – the big head of Dortmund.

It was a sequel. Nightmare on Huntington Drive. The Saturday Before Friday the 13th. Dortmund had beaten Firing Line by a head in the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity in December. Now this.

“It was tough, but you have to draw on the positives,” said Simon Callaghan, who trains Firing Line for Arnold Zetcher. “He had run two fantastic races to a proven good horse in Dortmund. They were fantastically run races in which he was narrowly beaten.”

This Sunday, Firing Line aims to play the heavy. He is heading to Sunland Park for the Grade 3, $800,000 Sunland Derby, in which he will be the favorite this time.

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Had his connections wanted to race him again at Santa Anita, Firing Line could have run against Dortmund two weeks ago in the San Felipe Stakes, or against Dortmund again two weeks from now in the Santa Anita Derby. The Sunland Derby falls six weeks after the Lewis and six weeks before the May 2 Kentucky Derby.

“He knew he’d had a race last time, but he bounced out of it really well,” Callaghan said. “We could have run in the San Felipe if we wanted to, but we always had this race in the back of our mind.”

Firing Line was purchased by Callaghan on behalf of Zetcher at the sale of 2-year-olds in training at Keeneland last April. Callaghan’s strike rate in these endeavors with Zetcher has been strong. The prior year, he bought Fashion Plate at a 2-year-old sale, too, and she went on to win a pair of Grade 1 races in 2014, the Las Virgenes and Santa Anita Oaks.

Firing Line, a son of Line of David, was expected to debut last summer at Del Mar. Callaghan had him up to five-eighths in his workouts.

“We were hoping he’d be a Futurity horse,” he said. “But we had to back off.”

He finally made it to the races in late October at Santa Anita. Bet down to even-money against 11 rivals, Firing Line broke dead last and then made a remarkable rally to finish second, beaten a half-length. In his next start, at Del Mar, he was 1-2 against 11 maidens and cruised to a 4 1/4-length victory. After those two sprints, he tried two turns for the first time in the Los Alamitos Futurity.

Firing Line – who will be ridden by Gary Stevens on Sunday – continues to train strongly. His aggressive gallops find exercise rider Paul Eddery using draw reins. His workouts are deceptively fast, owing to his high cruising speed.

”The last one I worked like him was In Excess,” said Stevens, referring to the winner in 1991 of the Met Mile, Whitney, and Woodward. “You want to work in a minute, you think you’ve gone in a minute, and it turns out they went in 57. Now whenever they want him to go in a minute, I get it in my head that I need to go 1:03.”

Callaghan said Firing Line is “an exuberant horse,” but that he’s “definitely gotten a lot more relaxed.” Eddery agrees, saying that Firing Line’s willingness to cooperate with the rider “is 10 times better now than two months ago.”

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But he still demands special care. Twice in the past month – on Feb. 27 and March 9 – Firing Line has undergone shock-wave therapy, which can be used to treat soft-tissue and bone ailments. Callaghan said it was done on Firing Line “to cover all the bases.”

Because horses must be lightly sedated for the treatment, and because research studies have described an analgesic-type reaction in horses to shock-wave therapy, horses who undergo the treatment in California must be put on the veterinarian’s list and are excluded from racing for 10 days. Firing Line was due to come off the list Thursday. His race is Sunday. Though the race is in New Mexico, states usually reciprocate when it comes to rulings in other jurisdictions.

A curious sidelight to Firing Line being placed on the vet’s list is that the 99-page list available to the public on the California Horse Racing Board’s website as of Sunday – when Firing Line had his last workout – did not list him, nor the 14 other horses who as of that day had undergone shock-wave therapy in the prior 10 days at Santa Anita. However, an internal system used by the racing office – and made available to Daily Racing Form after an inquiry was raised – did denote all horses who had undergone shock-wave therapy.

Mike Marten, a spokesman for the racing board, this week said the board was aware of the discrepancy regarding shock-wave therapy and was endeavoring to rectify it, saying the policy of not listing those horses publicly on the board’s website predated the current executive director, Rick Baedeker. On Tuesday afternoon, Baedeker directed racing-board staff to include shock-wave therapy on the vet’s list available to the public. The list was updated late on Wednesday morning.