04/08/2015 3:10PM

Hovdey: Firing Line measures up nicely to the big horse


While Dortmund was propelling himself into the role of likely favorite for the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby with his 4 1/4-length victory last Saturday in the Santa Anita Derby, the second-best 3-year-old colt in California was back at the barn, blissfully ignorant of the action on the track and getting itchy for dinner. It was, after all, bearing down on 4 o’clock.

A little while later, as Dortmund was being cooled down, washed off, and tested, the second-best 3-year-old colt in California was licking the bottom of his feed tub. He was not breaking a sweat. It had been two weeks since he had run and four weeks before he would run again. The second-best 3-year-old colt in California was very much enjoying life.

Owned by Arnold and Ellen Zetcher and trained by Simon Callaghan, Firing Line has become the horse Derby watchers are trying hard not to forget. Since early February, he has remained above the serious fray, going forth only once since then to parade home by 14 1/4 lengths in the Sunland Park Derby. Prior to that, in consecutive races against Dortmund, Firing Line was beaten a head in the Los Alamitos Futurity and a head in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, which by any measure is not that much.

Still, it’s the marquee names who call the tune, which is why Firing Line – king of New Mexico – can’t seem to creep much higher than fourth on the lists compiled by the dozens upon dozens of pundits obliged to rate this year’s Derby contenders. One such observer ranked Dortmund first and Firing Line ninth, which begged the question answered by Callaghan himself.

“That’s a lot of horses to fit in the head between those two,” the trainer said.

There will be a lot in Firing Line’s portfolio to oppose come Derby time. There is that six-week gap between races. His pedigree is redolent with speed. His trainer is young, British, and a Derby rookie. And don’t even ask about the jockey, who admits to being 52 years old.

Then again, Firing Line proved he could run huge off six or seven weeks in both the Lewis and the Sunland Derby. The speed in his pedigree comes from animals who could carry it a route of ground. His trainer can’t do anything about being British, but he at least had the decency to turn 32 last month. As for that jockey, Gary Stevens has already won three Kentucky Derbies and is nowhere near as old as Bill Shoemaker was when he won with Ferdinand. He was 54.

The proliferation of rich, graded Kentucky Derby preps afforded Callaghan and the Zetchers the opportunity to test their principle that Firing Line’s best race comes at the end of a six-week windup.

“He’s not a horse who particularly needs the spacing,” Callaghan said. “He ran back in three weeks at Los Alamitos after his maiden win. The fact that he’s had just the five races to this point, dating back to last October, I think is going to stand us in good stead if we decide to go on to a race like the Preakness, for instance. Not having so many miles on the clock should be beneficial.”

Much has been made of Dortmund’s size, of which there is a lot. Certain photos of Firing Line and Dortmund arriving together at the end of their confrontations brings to mind an equine version of Mutt and Jeff, or Tyrion Lannister standing next to anyone. Callaghan suggests the illusion has been optical.

“Dortmund is an exceptionally big horse, but ours is a big horse as well,” Callaghan said. “He stands 16 hands 1, and he’s got to be pushing 1,200 pounds. Physically, there’s lots of scope, good balance, and he very much enjoys his training.”

Callaghan has had enough experience shipping horses to Churchill Downs for Derby week races to give him a taste for what to expect. The plan is to give Firing Line his final pre-Derby work Saturday, April 26, and then fly him to Louisville the following day, where he will settle into the stakes barn.

“This is the kind of horse who takes everything in stride,” Callaghan said. “Whenever he goes someplace new, he just eats, sleeps, and does what he normally does. In that sense, you’ve got to treat the Derby like you would any other race. Every time he’s run, he’s run a very good race, so the best thing you can do is keep doing what you’ve been doing.”

What Callaghan was doing last Saturday was paying close attention to the Santa Anita Derby. He was asked if he allowed himself to wonder how Firing Line would have fared against a very dominant Dortmund.

“There wouldn’t have been much separating them, the way I see it,” Callaghan said. “Certainly, from a form standpoint, it was very nice for us to see Dortmund win with such authority.”

As for Callaghan’s Derby rookie status, that is hardly an issue. More than 50 trainers have won the Kentucky Derby in their first try, including Neil Drysdale, Barclay Tagg, John Servis, Chip Woolley, Rick Dutrow, Michael Matz, John Shirreffs, and Art Sherman since 2000 alone. Still, that doesn’t mean Callaghan isn’t human.

“There are moments when you start thinking ‘what if?’ ” he said. “I just need to remember to keep my feet on the ground. And besides, we’ve got three more works to get through before we even put him on the plane. So, let’s do that first.”