Arnold Zetcher's Firing Line has played the underdog for some time.
Two tough-luck head losses to undefeated Dortmund in previous Triple Crown prep races facilitated that label.
But there will be no Dortmund in the $800,000 Sunland Derby (gr. III) March 22 at Sunland Park, and the Line of David colt will almost surely be favored for the first time since he broke his maiden at Del Mar Nov. 30.
With 50 make-or-break Road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) points on the line, the Kentucky-bred should win in New Mexico, a position he hasn't been in for his last two runs with Dortmund in the Los Alamitos Futurity (gr. I) Dec. 20 and Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita Park Feb. 7.
Firing Line, who has been installed as the 8-5 morning-line favorite for the Sunland Derby, currently sits in 26th place in the Road to the Kentucky Derby standings, which would not give the colt a spot in the gate for the Run for the Roses.
"You've got to treat every race individually," trainer Simon Callaghan said. "This is a pretty nice spot for him... It would certainly be nice to get the horse's head in front, but we take every race once step at a time. Hopefully we can win on Sunday and start making plans."
Firing Line will break from the inside post with Hall of Famer Gary Stevens aboard for his second straight mount on the colt, and although starting on the rail can present some problems, Callaghan is confident the colt's versatility will lead to a positive result.
"He doesn't have to ride in any specific way," Callaghan said of Firing Line's ability to rate and run in different styles. "You wouldn't choose the inside post, but we can put him wherever we need to. How the race unfolds is how Gary will ride him."
Another Bob Baffert-trained colt will be the main challenger for Firing Line, however, and he has a leg up in the sense that he has proven he can beat winners. Peachtree Stables' Lord Nelson has an impressive victory over Sentient Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) winner Texas Red in the San Vicente Stakes (gr. II) Feb. 1, but was well back in fourth against Dortmund in the San Felipe (gr. II) last time out March 7.
The son of Pulpit also hasn't claimed a victory at any distance over a mile. He broke his maiden at first asking going five furlongs at Del Mar July 19 and scored his first stakes win in the Speakeasy Oct. 13 going six furlongs at Santa Anita, before the seven-furlong win in the San Vicente.
In his three races over a mile, Lord Nelson's best finish is fourth and he's never gone farther than 1 1/16 miles. The Sunland Derby covers 1 1/8 miles. He sits as the 3-1 second choice on the morning line and will carry go-to Baffert jockey Martin Garcia from post 2.
Lord Nelson is the only graded stakes winner in the eight-horse field, but just outside the two favorites in post 3 is proven Sunland winner Where's the Moon, who broke his maiden at the New Mexico track on his fifth try Feb. 13, then carried that momentum to claim a 2 1/2-length victory in the Mine That Bird Derby at Sunland Feb. 21 at odds of 13-1. A son of Malibu Moon trained by Henry Dominguez, Where's the Moon will have Luis Contreras aboard for his first graded stakes try.
Another colt coming off a stakes win is Turf Paradise Derby winner Why Two. He claimed his first stakes Feb. 21 at the Arizona oval by a length going 1 1/16 miles. By Bob and John, the Michael Machowsky-trained colt will carry Victor Espinoza and break from post 4. Aaron Gryder was aboard for the Turf Paradise Derby, but Espinoza guided Why Now to his maiden win at Santa Anita Jan. 25.
Malibu Mogul, a two-time winner over Sunland, stakes winner Pain and Misery (seventh in the San Felipe), Tiznow R J, and Dirt Monster round out the field.
Two races before the Sunland Derby, eight fillies will contest the $200,000 Sunland Park Oaks. The field for the 1 1/16-mile test will be highlighted by Baffert-trained Callback, the lone graded stakes winner. By Street Sense , the filly is coming off her first stakes win in the Las Virgenes (gr. I) Jan. 31 at Santa Anita.
Local runner Rousanne is the only other stakes winner in the field, coming off a 2 3/4-length victory in the Island Fashon Stakes at Sunland Feb. 22.
Sunland Park, Sunday, March 22, 2015, Race 11
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Firing Line (KY) Gary L. Stevens 122 Simon Callaghan - 2 2Lord Nelson (KY) Martin Garcia 122 Bob Baffert - 3 3Where's the Moon (KY) Luis Contreras 122 Henry Dominguez - 4 4Why Two (KY) Victor Espinoza 122 Michael Machowsky - 5 5Malibu Mogul (KY) Enrique Portillo Gomez 122 Henry Dominguez - 6 6Tiznow R J (FL) Robby Albarado 122 Steven M. Asmussen - 7 7Pain and Misery (KY) Norberto Arroyo, Jr. 122 Henry Dominguez - 8 8Dirt Monster (KY) Ry Eikleberry 122 Justin R. Evans -
Sunland Park, Sunday, March 22, 2015, Race 11