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Mar 27, 2015

Up the Backstretch: Firing Line dances way into Kentucky Derby

By: By Don Agriss, Horse Racing Editor

 Philadelphia, PA ( - No winner of the Sunland Derby has yet to win the Kentucky Derby. That could change this year if Sunday's exhibition by Firing Line was not just a one-time happening.

Firing Line, trained by Simon Callaghan for Arnold Zetcher, came in from Santa Anita and showed every one of the 19,081 in attendance at Sunland Park that he was at least the equal of the top two 3-year-olds, Dortmund and American Pharoah.

With Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens again aboard, Firing Line made easy work of his six challengers in the 1 1/8-mile, $800,000 Sunland Derby. The colt posted all sorts of records in winning the race and collecting enough points to reserve himself a place in the 20-horse field for the Run for the Roses on May 2.

Stevens may not have liked having the inside post for the race, but Firing Line seemed to like everything about his time at the New Mexico track across the state line from El Paso.

"It looked a lot simpler that it was out there," Stevens said right after the race. "I didn't like it when we drew the 1 hole, the race was loaded with other pace. This colt, he probably handles things a lot better than I did out there. He makes easy work of it."

Firing Line pressed the early pace but didn't wait too long before taking the lead around the final turn and easily opening a large lead down the stretch. The 3-year-old, with just a maiden win coming into Sunland, established a stakes-record 14 1/4-length victory while covering the 1 1/8 miles in a track and stakes record 1:47.39.

"He did it all very professionally. Real easy. I'm in a great spot. He can do well at the next level," Stevens noted.

Firing Line is easily the strongest horse to come off a Sunland Derby victory going toward the Kentucky Derby. Remember, Mine That Bird finished fourth in the race before posting his upset, 60-1 win at Churchill Downs six years ago.

"This is my third horse to qualify for the Kentucky Derby," Zetcher said. "I've owned horses for 13 years and Firing Line is one of the best. It was a great effort ... he was ready to go and we are going to Kentucky. Simon is a great trainer and the way he approaches the sport is perfect for Firing Line. Having Gary Stevens on board is a tremendous plus, and his experience will help us. We are so lucky. We have the oldest jockey and the youngest trainer. Firing Line is a really good horse."

After consecutive runner-up finishes to Dortmund, Firing Line needed more than a win to be considered a serious Kentucky Derby contender. He offered up a well-prepared effort as reason for his backers to be confident moving forward.

"This is a very nice colt. He won well. We figured he was the best. He didn't have to force a pace with quick fractions. In his training, he's learned how to relax a lot and it paid off handsomely," Callaghan said. "The Sunland Derby has been on a radar for a while. It is a nice ship from California. He trained well over the track and handled it well. He matured a lot in recent months. Those were major factors."

Firing Line will now have six weeks to get ready for the biggest horse race in the country.

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