SARATOGA SPRINGS — At Saratoga Race Course, jockeys have to walk through the crowd to get back to the locker room after a race.
It’s an opportunity for fans to get autographs and selfies, and lucky kids could even score some used pairs of goggles.
The kids came up a little short on gifts from Ricardo Santana Jr. on Sunday.
He said he was so confident in Echo Zulu in the Grade I Spinaway “that I only wore two goggles for seven furlongs,” assuming correctly that he and Echo Zulu wouldn’t get much dirt kicked in their faces.
That confidence was rewarded when the daughter of 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner won the Spinaway by four lengths, in the process becoming the first Grade I winner by the promising young sire.
It was an especially gratifying win for trainer Steve Asmussen, who also trained Gun Runner during the 2017 campaign that included a sweep of the Whitney and Woodward at Saratoga.
“My gosh. I can’t measure how much I wanted that, just to have Gun Runner’s first Grade I winner, with everything he did for the barn,” Asmussen said. “He’s obviously a tremendous sire, and somebody had to be first, but I’m glad it was us.”
Speaking of spinning away, much of the announced paid admission crowd of 36,403 was long gone by the time Echo Zulu ran away with the Spinaway, having secured their free Saratoga hoodies from the second promotional giveaway of the meet.
What they missed was the best performance of the meet by a 2-year-old (so far through 39 of 40 racing days, pending Monday’s Hopeful).
“That race right there was just beautiful,” Asmussen said. “I thought she kind of stutter-stepped the first step, then moved up in there. From the inside, in a Grade I, to stutter-step a bit and rush for a jump to be back where you thought you were going to be and then to run like that, that’s not easy to do and a real credit to her.”
Despite the bobble at the start, Echo Zulu controlled the early pace through a quarter-mile in 22.07 and 44.73 for the half-mile.
She ripped through those splits easily, though, which became apparent in the stretch when she actually lengthened her lead without much urging from Santana.
“That’s what Ricardo said when he came back, ‘I thought they let us get away with going a little slow, and when I looked back and saw the times, she’s just very fast, very easy,'” Asmussen said.
“I had so much confidence,” Santana said. “She was working real nice, and today she improved a lot.”
Echo Zulu went off at odds of 3-5 after winning her career debut at Saratoga by 5 1/2 lengths going 5 1/2 furlongs on opening day July 15.
From that maiden race, Asmussen gave her a series of breezes four Sundays in a row on the Oklahoma Training Track.
“We prepared her like a first-time starter at Saratoga, to run, and she responded and ran well, but that was a long time ago going 5 1/2 against different horses,” he said. “And to jump from maidens to a Grade I off one race with everything going your own way is not easy, and I think it takes a special horse to do it. And maybe that’s what she is.”
Echo Zulu’s Spinaway was the fourth Grade I victory for Asmussen’s barn.
They won the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Saturday, and made a Travers Day sweep of the Forego with Yaupon and the Allen Jerkens with Jackie’s Warrior.
With just two races at short distances under Echo Zulu’s belt, it’s too early to compare her to Gun Runner, “other than they really like to train, they’re very sound and they’re very hardy horses,” Asmussen said.
“Eats good, trains good, rests well. She is all class, and training her, she’ll go as easy as you want her to go and picks it up when asked. But she’s not been in a hurry, for a filly that’s as fast as she is.”
Longer distances are definitely in her future, though, and she has to be considered the current favorite to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies in November off her Spinaway.
“It’s impossible not to think next, no matter how good that was,” Asmussen said. “That looked like it would translate to the Frizette [Oct. 3 at Belmont Park] pretty good to me and hopefully be the bridge. But to suggest what she can’t do right now would be probably a mistake. The way she went through the stretch with 44 and change, she’s not limited. We’re not entering her going two miles or a mile and a half yet, but I do think the mile looks pretty tasty. That is a special filly right there.”
JOCKEY TITLE CHASE
A week ago, the question was whether Luis Saez might take a run at Ramon Dominguez’s record of 68 for most wins at a Saratoga meet.
After three of four winless days heading into Sunday, the uncomfortable question was whether Saez might not win the title at all.
Irad Ortiz Jr. made a big push to get within five wins of Saez’s total after three races on Sunday, but Saez will head into closing day with a 62-56 lead over the only jockey who mathematically has a chance to catch him.
Saez is named to ride all 12 races on Monday; Ortiz is named to ride all except the 12th.
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