Always a groomsman and never a groom.
Those words describe the entirety of Firing Line’s short 2015 season. In fact, you could say they apply to nearly his entire career.
The talented son of Line of David showed promise early on. Unfortunately, he had the bad luck to run up against Bob Baffert’s precocious behemoth Dortmund.
The two first met in the Grade I Los Alamitos Futurity in 2014. Both horses entered the race off of dominating victories, but Firing Line was only third in the betting that day, while Dortmund was made the odds-on favorite.
For a few painstaking seconds through the stretch drive, it seemed as though Firing Line would get the best of Dortmund. Firing Line has established a short lead from Mr. Z, and Dortmund was steadily grinding away, but running out of time. However, when the wire came, Dortmund and his ginormous strides surge by, in the nick of time, nailing Firing Line by a head.
The Los Alamitos Futurity would prove to be just the beginning of the rivalry, which saw Firing Line get nailed by a head, once more, in the Robert B. Lewis.
Firing Line and Dortmund would meet one more time in 2015 and that meeting would come in the Kentucky Derby. There, Firing Line finally found his rivals measure, outrunning Dortmund down the long Churchill Downs stretch. Despite the small victory, however, he did not win the ultimate battle — that was won by American Pharoah, who would go on to win the Triple Crown.
Just when it looked as if Firing Line would break out against a Baffert monster, another one came along and put him back in his place — second.
Today, Firing Line makes his long awaited 2016 debut in an allowance/optional claimer, where he hopes to make his way back into the winner’s circle.
His entry came as somewhat of a surprise, as reports had him pointing to the San Diego Handicap, where he would end up meeting California Chrome and, coincidentally, Dortmund. However, while change of plans came as a surprise initially, it could turn out to be a wise move.
Firing Line hasn’t raced since last year’s Preakness Stakes, in which he sustained an unspecified injury that ended up nagging him through the rest of the year. While California Chrome and Dortmund are coming off of layoffs as well, the time they spent away wasn’t nearly as extensive.
Dortmund was last seen in the Native Diver Stakes on Nov. 28, which means he will be entering the San Diego off an 8 ½-month layoff (34 weeks). California Chrome, last seen dominating the Dubai World Cup held on March 26, will be coming off a 17-week layoff, which equates to a little over four months. Firing Line has been away from the races for over 14 months.
Opting for the allowance race is far from ducking competition. It will be Firing Line’s first race of the year and his first off of a very lengthy vacation. An allowance provides the perfect first race prep, to get the old competitive juices flowing. It also allows him to get a little more foundation before he takes on the best horses in his division.
The slow and progressive approach is completely different than the approach that was used on him in the beginning of his career. Because of his raw talent, and possibly a slight bit of Derby Fever, Firing Line was rushed and pitted against top talent early on. It obviously wasn’t a bad approach, as Firing Line did earn nearly $1 million from October 25, 2014 to May 16, 2015.
However, no matter how much money you earn, winning always feels best and that is likely what owner Arnold Zetcher and trainer Simon Callaghan are trying to achieve with their new approach.
We will see if this new “slow and steady” approach will allow Firing Line to finally become the groom we’ve all been waiting for.