The question everyone wants to know at Saturday’s $400,000 Twinspires.com Fair Grounds Oaks(G2) in New Orleans, Louisiana: What will 2021 junior filly champion Echo Zulu do for an encore in 2022?
Since hitting the racetrack last summer in Saratoga, the Gun Runner filly has been everything and more to her owners, L & N Racing and Winchell Thoroughbreds. He worked his way through an undefeated junior season that included three prestigious Grade 1 victories, capped off with a dominant effort in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1).
Undefeated in four starts, Echo Zulu settled in as a prohibitive 3-5 favorite at the morning line in field six. He has been largely untested with a wicked cutting-edge style, winning all four of his starts by a combined 22 lengths.
“We’re excited to get started on her,” trainer Steve Asmussen said. “She is doing extremely well. She has put on some impressive moves on the race track and 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 that also includes graded stakes winners Turnerloose and Hidden Connection.
“She took the rail out so we have to get away from there cleanly and Joel will have a good way to get into the first corner to put her in a good position,” Asmussen added. “She has handled everything extremely well that we have thrown at her up to this point. We are giving Fair Grounds Oaks its due. I don’t want to talk about the next one of hers until she races the Oaks here, but we certainly have high hopes for her this year.”
Asmussen, who also coaches Epicenter, the 7-5 morning line Louisiana Derby favorite, 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. .
Featuring a 1 1/16 mile competition on the main track, Fair Grounds Oaks serves as a great prep for the Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1) and awards points on a scale of 100-40-20-10. With 30 points earned from her wins in the Frizette(G1) and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies(G1), Echo Zulu currently sits sixth in the Kentucky Oaks standings.
Echo Zulu will see a pair of familiar Breeders Cup faces at the gate in Sequist (8-1) and Hidden Connection (5-1), but Ike’s Turnerloose (6-1) and Dawn Thrash poses a new threat to their victory. . last month in the Rachel Alexandra Stakes (G2) presented by Fasig Tipton.
Making his gravel debut in that race for trainer Brad Cox, Turnerloose pulled off a favorable ride to surprise the field at odds of 17-1 under regular driver Florent Geroux. Cox knows that his filly will need more effort if he is to get past the champion on the long course of Fair Grounds.
“It’s going to be a tough test, but we hope he runs 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’ll take our shot. It’s a shortstop and we should be in a good position. Hopefully we are fitter and the only race we had this year helps us out a bit and she can get there.”
Having won the last two editions of 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 is one of the best 2-year-old fillies I have seen in at least the last 10 years,” he praised. “I danced in three grade ones and was impressive in all of them.”
Hidden Connection drew the outside post of all six entrants, but that’s a lot better than the outside post of 11 they dealt with last time out as the favorite in Rachel Alexandra. The daughter of Connect used her speed early on to try to establish a position at the clubhouse turn, prompting some quick fractions up front. She built a two-length lead beyond the three-eighth post, but couldn’t hold off a trio of closers in the lane. She settled for fourth place but was only beaten by just over three lengths. Trainer Bret Calhoun hopes his filly will improve in her second start after the break.
“I don’t want to make excuses that she’s not 100% (in Rachel Alexandra), she couldn’t get over some hurdles,” Calhoun said. “I didn’t have it tight enough. I thought it was a good race and I was confident that we would keep going. Since that race, everything has been perfect. She has been trained as I wanted, all the jobs have been great, she has been herself all the time. I think she’s ready to step up and be who she is and who we’ve always thought she was.”
Owned by Hidden Brook Farm and Black Type Thoroughbreds, Hidden Connection will once again enlist the services of Reylu Gutierrez in the shackles. Calhoun is well aware that this may be the best time to take on Echo Zulu.
“If you are going to face the champion, this is the time to do it,” he said. “He’s a great filly, but he’s got a bit of a handicap as far as today.”
Recent Fair Grounds allotment winner Bernabreezy offers an unlikely option from Matt Shirer’s barn. The daughter of Bernardini owns a pair of off-the-beating two-lap home wins with a third-place finish at Silverbulletday in January between those efforts for Nelson McMakin and Aaron Kennedy.
“I was a little nervous about Silverbulletday,” Shirer admitted. “I was alert in the paddock a little bit more than I thought I would be. And when we sent her to the post show, I could tell she really wanted to go after him. When she walked out the door, she was a bit too sharp. She wasn’t ranged, but she did throw her head once or twice going into the first turn.”
Bernabreezy bounced back nicely at his assignment award on Feb. 18, where he defeated Sequist, who was making his sophomore debut for coach Dallas Stewart after being placed Grade 1 as a junior.
“We taught you a lot more about the counter the other day,” Shirer said. “And it seemed like she was much more relaxed. She saved her energy. She just wants to sit back and have a great race. I thought she showed a great turn on her feet. James (jockey Graham) almost cut the corner in the turn, and in the three-sixteenth she really sped up. She passed the horses and then slowed her down a bit, so I have to make sure I teach her to follow through and finish through the wire.”
From post four, Fair Grounds lead jockey James Graham retains the mount.
Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher will board the Stonestreet Stables Favor to make her classic debut here after a pair of wins this winter in a mile lap at Gulfstream Park. The 3-year-old daughter of Pioneerof the Nile 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 Twinspires.com Fair Grounds Oaks (race 11 at 5:12 CST) with stall position, jockey/trainer and morning line odds: L and N Racing and Winchell Thoroughbreds Echo Zulu (1st slot, Joel Rosario/Steve Asmussen, 3-5 ML), earning $1.48 million from her four wins as a 2-year-old; Ike and Dawn Thrash’s Turnerloose (No. 2, Florent Geroux/Brad Cox, 6-1 ML), currently third in the Kentucky Oaks standings with 50 points; Stonestreet Stables’ Favor (post 3, Tyler Gaffalione/Todd Pletcher, 8-1 ML), making his debut in two at-bats; Bernabreezy of Nelson McMakin and Aaron Kennedy (4th place, James Graham/Matt Shirer, 8-1 ML) making his debut in graded stakes; West Point Thoroughbred, Gervais Racing, Charles Pigg, Stewart Racing Stables, Tom Andres and Karen Kraft’s Sequist (5th place, Junior Alvarado/Dallas Stewart, 8-1 ML) who occupies Grade 1 thanks to a third-place finish in the Alcibiades (G1 ) at Keeneland last year; Hidden Brook Farm and Black Type Thoroughbreds’ Hidden Connection (#6, Reylu Gutierrez/Bret Calhoun, 5-1 ML) winner of the Pocahontas Stakes(G3) at Churchill Downs.