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.”

Bob Bernhardt More than 1 year ago
I played the Firing Line-Dortmund Box in the March 1st Futures pool. I have dreams Of Sunday Silence/Easy Goer and Affirmed/Alydar. Let me just get them in the gate.
Meydan Rocks More than 1 year ago
Firing Line - 2015 Kentucky Derby Winner
tommy More than 1 year ago
Firing line , materiality, mubtaahij will win the kentucky derby!!!!!!!!! Why don't you like your Dubai friend muntaahij ???? When he wins the kentucky derby you will hear me say Muba !!! Muba !!!! Muubbbbaaaaa !!!!!!!!
Cover2 More than 1 year ago
If he was 50-1 , worth a shot, toss along with Dubai to the Derby colorbearer !
Jim Fields More than 1 year ago
godspeed, and good luck. I rate him in the top four, bobby's two, the dubaii horse, and firing line.
Cover2 More than 1 year ago
Toss, FL , along with The Desert hope !
David Musselman More than 1 year ago
For those concerned about FL's pedigree, Line od David was the Arkansas Derby winner from like 10 years ago, so there is hope here. I do disagree with those who rate him as a confirmed front runner, I think he's got several gears and can rate kindly when asked. I rate him as a must use in Derby exotics.
Scott More than 1 year ago
David, Line of David won the Arkansas Derby (9F's by the way) in 2010. He set fast fractions (22 and change first quarter and 46 and change at the half) while being left alone all the way to the 3/4 pole. He was gritty in the stretch as Super Saver and Dublin nearly got to him. Had it been a longer race....well, there's your pedigree question mark. He finished 18th in the Derby. Worth noting his sire was Lionheart who nearly lasted the whole way while being left pretty much alone on the lead in the 2004 Derby. Maybe Gary can get this guy to rate, but I really think 9F's is the max for this guy.
Dom DiNatale More than 1 year ago
If you like Dortmund like he was the second coming of BIG RED how can you not like firing line? Yes Dortmund got headed and then came back and stuck his nose in front at the wire BARELY!!!! ..in 2001 Monarchos ran second to Congaree in the Wood after having won the FLA derby then the tables were turned in the derby....handicappers in general have a bad habit of jumping from horse to horse whoever won last....anyone who thinks Dortmund is a lock because he is undefeated should think twice....get John Calipari on thee phone and ask him '' what could go wrong '' ....
Scott More than 1 year ago
There are several reasons I don't like Firing Line's chances in the Derby: 1) I know he was only beaten a head twice by Dortmund, but both those races were at 1 1/16th. When you consider that he actually passed Dortmund in the stretch and then gave up it up prior to the finish, it makes you wonder if he has the distance. 2) Running style - He sort of rated for about a 1/2 mile in the Sunland Derby which surprised me, but I really think this guy will be too close to the pace (which will be too much). 3) Pedigree - Short of an uncontested lead, this guy doesn't want 10F's. It's been a few years since a horse was able to get a completely uncontested lead in the Derby (2002 War Emblem) and I doubt this year will have one. Note: Bodemeister was uncontested, but I don't count it, because he was FLYING (and still didn't win).
Gunner More than 1 year ago
And I know that Smarty Jones and Barbaro don't count because they didn't get uncontested leads, and yet, they drew off when asked at the Quarter Pole. You are over thinking it - DUDE!
Scott More than 1 year ago
Gunner, Smarty Jones was closer to the pace set by Lionheart than Barbaro was in his race, but neither of these two were front runners by nature. They definitely don't count as uncontested leads. Maybe, Firing Line will sit back as far as Barbaro did (rewatch the race and you'll see that Barbaro sat a chilly 4th for most of the race), but I don't think he will. If he beats me, he beats me, but you can't over think the Derby. There are too many high quality horses, so you have to picture how the race will unfold. Obviously, the post draw will affect it, but regardless I really think Firing Line will be too close to the pace and that will be his undoing.
Walter More than 1 year ago
I really see Dortmund running the same trip like Barbaro, and winning like him also. He has the same style.
Tim Sr. More than 1 year ago
How about saying who you like instead of who you don't like and why? It makes it sound like your trying to talk yourself out of playing Firing Line. 'Short of an uncontested lead, this guy doesn't want 10f' Really? His race at Sunland was a typical race where his class just dictated Stevens to control the race. He's displayed his talent, he didn't need to be at SA, he needed the points. He's been handled well, he has a rider who knows how to win this race. I don't know if he can win, but I like him, and if you're discounting him you better come up with a couple other reasons cause the ones you put up make zero sense. He's two heads from being 5 for 5 for crying out loud.
Scott More than 1 year ago
Tim, It's all about pairing down the field for me, but if you really care: My top 3 picks: 1) Dortmund - I know he's been on the lead the last two out, but like Walter, I really think he'll sit back off a ridiculous pace. I could go on and on and say what everybody else says (that likes him), but he's going to be either the top pick or 2nd choice for good reason (I'm hoping AP freaks in the Arkansas and brings his odds up 3 to 1, but I really expect him to be 5 to 2). 2) Carpe Diem - Pedigree and style suggest that he's the most likely to succeed after Dortmund. His worst race was a closing 2nd in the BC Juvenille, so there really isn't anything too negative to say about him. 3) International Star - If my top two picks get too close too early, then I expect a closer to pick up the remains. IS is my "long" shot pick to do just that. I love his ability to accelerate and decelerate during the race as needed and there hasn't been a horse that has squeezed through the holes this one has this year. He needs everything to break his way, but if horses like Giacomo and Mine That Bird can win, then anything is possible. Firing Line is a really nice horse, but as I stated above, he's a pretty easy toss for me. For every horse who outruns his pedigree, there are 100 who don't. Firing Line is a really nice 9F or shorter type (like many horses these days. Almost all Tapit's progeny seem to faulter after 9F's, but they're really nice up to that distance.)
Scott More than 1 year ago
Oh, I should note, that I have no issue with his connections going to Sunland to get the easy win. I would have done the same thing if he was my horse. It's a nice payday and a sure way into the gate while getting the time between races that this one seems to thrive on.
hialeah More than 1 year ago
If I didn't know better (no sure thing), I might get the impression (on top off it all) that Firing Line is the second-best 3-year-old colt in California. And I coulda had a V-8. Until the New Mexico race, I might have been inclined to say he was fighting above his weight. But no more, reshuffle the deck, and let's get serious on the Big Four! They know who they are.
Debbie Gardner More than 1 year ago
Firing Line is in my top 3 colts to use on top in some fashion in the Derby. He was only beaten a head twice by Dortmund, but will probably be twice the odds. He has a multiple Derby winning jockey in Gary Stevens The only thing is, I never could understand why the trainers don't ship in early for the Derby and get the horse acclimated to his surroundings, settled down, have his last w/o on the actual track where he is going to race. I never could understand that. I think Firing Line has a legitimate shot to wear the roses. I hope he doesn't draw the dreaded # 1 hole, Ouch! That would be a game changer.
Dave D More than 1 year ago
Nice horse, best will do however is third. After this weekend destruction at Oak lawn by AP, it will be a west coast superfeta. AP, Bid D, FL, OLD boxed! lol. Love Horse racing, but will admit that just about everyone who post on here is more knowledgeable than I, hence my farfetched selections. I will bet it though.
Dom DiNatale More than 1 year ago
Don't think AP is going cause any destruction at AK on saturday...FAR RIGHT and MR Z are legit foes and though they maybe aren't as good as AP they certainly will make him earn it....as for me i'm not a big fan of AP ....I tend to like horses that have raced more often than this one...and if i'm wrong and he does destroy this field he'll be even more of a throw out on derby day....google Bellamy Road