03/23/2015 10:03AM

Road to the Derby analysis: Sunland Derby

Coady Photography
Firing Line wins the Grade 3 Sunland Derby, earing a Beyer Speed Figure of 97.

Grade 3, $800,000 Sunland Derby, 1 1/8 miles, Sunland Park, March 22, 2015
(50 Derby qualifying points for a win, 20 for second, 10 for third, 5 for fourth)

Winner: Firing Line
Trainer: Simon Callaghan
Jockey: Gary Stevens
Owner: Arnold Zetcher LLC
Beyer Speed Figure: 97

This was the last of the group of Kentucky Derby preps worth 85 points overall (50 to the winner), and it showcased the depth and strength of the Southern California-based 3-year-olds, for FIRING LINE made a mockery of this race after escaping the literal and figurative shadow of the hulking Dortmund.

Firing Line faced just six rivals in the Sunland Derby, only one of whom – TIZNOW R J – had even placed in a graded stakes race. It was a significant step down in class for Firing Line, and he made the most of it, picking up a $400,000 winner’s check and an automatic berth into the Kentucky Derby on May 2.

After an elongated post parade in which he kept his cool, Firing Line reared a bit in the starting gate a few moments before the field was sent away, but he broke perfectly fine and went up from his rail draw to set or force the pace along with WHY TWO and, farther out, MALIBU MOGUL. Down the backstretch, DIRT MONSTER and PAIN AND MISERY ranged up outside, and with 4 1/2 furlongs to go they were five abreast across the track.

Stevens niggled at Firing Line approaching the far turn, and he began to inch away from his rivals. Firing Line widened on the turn and poured it on down the stretch, with Stevens largely handling him as if out for a morning canter. Stevens gave Firing Line one light tap with the whip left-handed at midstretch, then let him coast the rest of the way for the easiest of wins.

:: ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays

The victory proved Firing Line could handle at least 1 1/8 miles, for he attended a hot pace and still had plenty left. The competition will be much stronger next time, but it was encouraging that he finished well and wasn’t acting as though the distance was getting to him.

Firing Line will now have six weeks off until the Kentucky Derby. There are two schools of thought regarding how this final prep will ready him for the task ahead. The negative view is that the final prep is too far out and that he didn’t get enough of a test out of this race. The positive view is that the timing, for this horse, is ideal and that he was battle-tested already. I’m in the latter camp.

Every horse is different. Just because one method of preparation worked for one horse for the Kentucky Derby doesn’t mean it works for all. Firing Line had seven weeks between the Los Alamitos Futurity and Robert Lewis and ran the best race of his career, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 104 while dropping a head decision to Dortmund. He had six weeks until the Sunland Derby and obviously ran well again. He will now have six weeks until the Kentucky Derby. He trains aggressively between starts, so there’s no problem keeping him on edge. He’s a willing worker, gallops with enthusiasm, and runs well with time between starts. For him, this is the best management.

As for this final prep not being enough of a test, certainly he was battle-tested in his two narrow losses to Dortmund. In fact, in the Los Alamitos Futurity, Firing Line was repeatedly bumped from his inside by Mr. Z the final three furlongs, but bravely kept to his task and just missed while racing between horses through the lane. In the Lewis, he finished more than 21 lengths clear of everyone else following a torrid stretch duel. He’s had his battles.

In my opinion, this was the best way to get Firing Line ready for the Kentucky Derby, and it gives him his best chance for success on May 2. If he doesn’t win the Kentucky Derby, it won’t be because he had too much time off between starts or wasn’t battle-tested – it will be because he wasn’t good enough.

There weren’t any Derby contenders chasing him on this day. WHERE’S THE MOON, who finished second, reared in the paddock and dropped jockey Luis Contreras, but behaved himself thereafter. He broke a step slowly, was on the rail behind Firing Line heading into the first turn, but then dropped back to last as the field swung into the backstretch. He rallied along the rail for much of the far turn before going outside Tiznow R J at the quarter pole, was on his wrong lead in upper stretch, but was able to persevere for the place.

Pain and Misery was fourth paths wide around the first turn and ended up five wide down the backstretch after Dirt Monster came up inside him. He wound up four paths wide on the far turn, kept plugging away, and out-finished Tiznow R J for third.

Tiznow R J, who finished fourth, continues to disappoint. He appeared to have no excuse in his prior start, the Risen Star, and failed to make an impact here despite a scenario that seemed tailor-made for him to finish second. He raced between horses while in the two path heading into the first turn, wound up in an ideal stalking position behind the five-abreast charge down the backstretch, got to the rail and followed Firing Line around the far turn to get into second, was late to swap leads in upper stretch, then had zero punch down the lane and yielded second and then third.

Dirt Monster, who was fifth, trailed into the first turn but moved up between rivals and wound up four paths wide entering the backstretch. He began to fade three furlongs out, was put to aggressive handling on the far turn, but had nothing.

Why Two, who was sixth, stirred a bit in the gate prior to the start but broke best of all, set or pressed the hot early pace while immediately outside Firing Line, could not keep pace with the winner on the far turn, and dropped out of it.

Malibu Mogul finished last of seven after pressing the early pace while outside of both Firing Line and Why Two. He was done with three furlongs to go and was virtually eased through the stretch, finishing more than 57 lengths behind the winner.