Champion Echo Zulu Kicks Off Sophomore Season in Fair Grounds Oaks
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Champion Echo Zulu Kicks Off Sophomore Season in Fair Grounds Oaks
Installed as Overwhelming 3-5 Favorite
(New Orleans, Louisiana – Monday, March 22, 2022) – The question everyone wants to know in the $400,000 Twinspires.com Fair Grounds Oaks (G2): what will 2021 Juvenile Fillies Champion Echo Zulu do for an encore in 2022?
Since hitting the race track last summer at Saratoga, the Gun Runner filly has been everything and more for her owners L & N Racing and Winchell Thoroughbreds. She navigated her way through an undefeated juvenile season that included three prestigious Grade I wins, capped off with a dominating effort in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1).
Unbeaten from four starts, Echo Zulu was installed as a prohibitive 3-to-5 favorite on the morning line in the field of six. She has largely gone untested with a wicked front-running style, winning her four starts by a combined 22 lengths.
“We are excited to get started with her,” trainer Steve Asmussen said. “She is doing extremely well. She has put in some impressive moves over the race track and she just trains beautifully like she always has.”
She will break for the first time in her career from the rail post position under Joel Rosario in a field which also includes graded stakes winners Turnerloose and Hidden Connection.
“She drew the rail so we have to get away from there cleanly and Joel will have a good ways to the first turn to get her in good position,” Asmussen added. “She has handled everything extremely well that we have thrown at her up to this point. We are giving the Fair Grounds Oaks its fair due. I don’t want to talk about the next one until she runs in the Oaks here but certainly we have high hopes this year for her.”
Asmussen, who also trains the 7-5 morning line Louisiana Derby favorite Epicenter, has won the Fair Grounds Oaks three times previously – with Lady Tak in 2003 and for Winchell Thoroughbreds in 2005 with Summerly and again in 2014 with Untapable.
Contested at 1 1/16 miles on the main track, the Fair Grounds Oaks serves as a major prep for the Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1) and rewards points on a 100-40-20-10 scale. With 30 points earned in her wins in the Frizette (G1) and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1), Echo Zulu is currently ranked sixth on the Kentucky Oaks leaderboard.
Echo Zulu will see a couple of familiar faces from the Breeders Cup in the gate in Sequist (8-1) and Hidden Connection (5-1), but Ike and Dawn Thrash’s Turnerloose (6-1) poses a new threat off her victory last month in the Rachel Alexandra Stakes (G2) presented by Fasig Tipton.
Making her dirt debut in that race for trainer Brad Cox, Turnerloose worked out a favorable trip to upset the field at 17.50-1 odds under regular pilot Florent Geroux. Cox knows his filly will need an improved effort if she is going to get past the champion in the long Fair Grounds stretch.
“It’s going to be a tough test, but we expect her to run well,” Cox said. “She’s already earned enough points to get into the Kentucky Oaks. I guess it’s better to run against her (Echo Zulu) now than if she had another month of training under her belt. We will take our shot. It’s a short field and we should be in a good position. Hopefully we are more fit and the one race we had this year will carry us a little and she can get there.”
Having won the last two editions of the Fair Grounds Oaks with Bonny South (2020) and Travel Column (2021), Cox was quick to point out that Echo Zulu could be a one-of-a-kind horse.
“She’s one of the best 2-year-old fillies I’ve seen in at least the last 10 years,” he lauded. “Danced in three grade ones and was impressive in all of them.”
Hidden Connection drew the outside post of the six entrants but that’s far better than the outside 11-post she dealt with last time out as the favorite in the Rachel Alexandra. The daughter of Connect used her speed early to try and establish position into the clubhouse turn which set off some quick fractions up front. She gained a two-length lead past the three-eighths pole but couldn’t hold off a trio of closers in the lane. She settled for fourth, but was only beaten a little over three lengths. Trainer Bret Calhoun expects his filly to improve in her second start off the layoff.
“I don’t want to make excuses about her not being 100% (in the Rachel), she couldn’t overcome a few obstacles,” he said. “I didn’t have her tight enough. I thought it was an okay race and was confident we would move forward. Since that race, everything has gone perfect. She’s trained like I wanted her to, every work has been great, she’s been herself the whole time. I think she’s ready to take a step forward and be who she is and what we’ve always thought she was.”
Owned by Hidden Brook Farm and Black Type Thoroughbreds, Hidden Connection will again get the services of Reylu Gutierrez in the irons. Calhoun is keenly aware this may be the best time to take on the likes of Echo Zulu.
“If you’re going to face the champ, this is the time to do it,” he said. “She’s a great filly, but she is at a little bit of a disadvantage as far as recency goes.”
Recent Fair Grounds allowance winner Bernabreezy offers a longshot option from the barn of Matt Shirer. The daughter of Bernardini owns a pair of two-turn off-the-pace wins locally with a third-place finish in the Silverbulletday in January sandwiched in between those efforts for Nelson McMakin and Aaron Kennedy.
“She was a little bit on edge for the Silverbulletday,” Shirer admitted. “She was on her toes in the paddock a little bit more than I thought she would be. And when we sent her out for the post parade, I could tell she was really wanting to get after it. When she broke from the gate, she was a little bit too sharp. She wasn’t rank, but she did throw her head once or twice going into the first turn.”
Bernabreezy rebounded nicely in her allowance win on Feb. 18 where she defeated Sequist, who was making her sophomore debut for trainer Dallas Stewart after being Grade I placed as a juvenile.
“We schooled her a bunch more going into the allowance the other day,” Shirer said. “And it just seemed like she was a lot more relaxed. She saved her energy. She just wants to sit back and make one big run. I thought she showed a huge turn of foot. James (jockey Graham) kind of cut the corner on the turn, and at the 3/16ths she really accelerated. She passed horses and then geared down a little bit, so I need to make sure to teach her to keep going and finish through the wire.”
From post four, Fair Grounds’ leading rider James Graham retains the mount.
Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher will ship in Stonestreet Stables’ Favor to make her stakes debut here after a pair of wins this winter going a one-turn mile at Gulfstream Park. The 3-year-old daughter of Pioneer of the Niles has been the favorite in all three lifetime starts. Pletcher was second last month in the Rachel Alexandra Stakes with Goddess of Fire.
The field for the Twinspires.com Fair Grounds Oaks (race 11 at 5:12 CST) with post position, jockey/trainer and morning line odds: L and N Racing & Winchell Thoroughbreds Echo Zulu (post 1, Joel Rosario/Steve Asmussen, 3-5 ML), earner of $1.48 million dollars from her four wins as a 2-year-old; Ike and Dawn Thrash’s Turnerloose (post 2, Florent Geroux/Brad Cox, 6-1 ML), currently third on the Kentucky Oaks leaderboard with 50 points; Stonestreet Stables’ Favor (post 3, Tyler Gaffalione/Todd Pletcher, 8-1 ML), making her two-turn debut; Nelson McMakin and Aaron Kennedy’s Bernabreezy (post 4, James Graham/Matt Shirer, 8-1 ML) making her graded stakes debut; West Point Thoroughbred, Gervais Racing, Charles Pigg, Stewart Racing Stables, Tom Andres and Karen Kraft’s Sequist (post 5, Junior Alvarado/Dallas Stewart, 8-1 ML) who is Grade I placed thanks to a third place finish in the Alcibiades (G1) at Keeneland last year; Hidden Brook Farm and Black Type Thoroughbreds’ Hidden Connection (post 6, Reylu Gutierrez/Bret Calhoun, 5-1 ML) winner of the Pocahontas Stakes (G3) at Churchill Downs.
Bret Calhoun on Hidden Connection
“Going into the Rachel Alexandra it was a little bit strange for me with her because she had been so automatic in the morning and so honest with her works. Just tremendous from the time I got her through all of her races. Wipe out the Breeders’ Cup, we gave her a little break, brought her back and she worked good, but they were workmanlike works, they weren’t wow me spectacular works like she had brought all along. I don’t know why. It was nothing physical, health or soundness. I didn’t get the spectacular work that I had wanted until the last work before she ran (in the Rachel Alexandra), and it put me behind because she just wasn’t putting enough into her works. She finally showed me in that last work that she was back, but, that being said, I needed those works three weeks prior to get me where I needed to be going into that race. I was a little behind (in her training), she breaks from the outside, we had to use her a little bit to get position, when that horse (La Crete) pulled up, it pushed her out.”
“She needs to prove to us that she can be prepared to go nine furlongs the first Friday in May. In order for us to run her in the Kentucky Oaks, she’s got to be good enough and capable enough to do that. Everyone gets excited and wants to win the big races, but you also have to be smart enough to recognize if it’s beyond their capabilities. I want to make sure she’s that kind and that she’s able to handle nine furlongs against grade one competition. Right now we think she is, but she has to prove that. If she tells us otherwise, I hope we’re smart enough to direct her into the races where she can be most effective. A lot of horses get mismanaged this time of year.”
About Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots
Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, one of the nation’s oldest racetracks, has been in operation since 1872. Located in New Orleans, LA, Fair Grounds, which is owned by Churchill Downs Incorporated (NASDAQ Global Select Market: CHDN), also operates a slot-machine gaming facility and 15 off-track betting parlors throughout Southeast Louisiana. The 150th Thoroughbred Racing Season – highlighted by the 109th running of the Louisiana Derby – will run from November 25, 2021 through March 27, 2022. More information is available online at www.fairgroundsracecourse.com.