The tenacious Echo Zulu first to the wire in the Ballerina (Janet Napolitano)
By Keith McCalmont – NYRA Press Office
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y.— L and N Racing and Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Echo Zulu outdueled the reigning Champion Female Sprinter Goodnight Olive and drew off to a 2 1/2-length score in Saturday’s Grade 1 Ballerina Handicap, a seven-furlong sprint for fillies and mares, at Saratoga Race Course.
Trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen and piloted by Florent Geroux, the 4-year-old Gun Runner bay punched a “Win and You’re In” ticket to the Grade 1, $1 million Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint on November 4 at Santa Anita Park.
The victory was the second Grade 1 win on the card for a horse trained by Asmussen and sired by his Winchell-campaigned 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner after Gunite took the Forego in gate-to-wire fashion under Tyler Gaffalione.
Echo Zulu entered from an eye-opening victory in the Grade 2 Honorable Miss Handicap on July 26 here that garnered a career-best 112 Beyer Speed Figure.
Asmussen said he felt cautiously optimistic his filly could turn the tables on Goodnight Olive after finishing second to that rival in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint to close out her sophomore season in November at Keeneland.
“Someone asked me, ‘How do you see it?’ and I said, ‘Well I assure you that we have respect for each other.’ That’s how it ought to be. That’s what makes these races so great,” Asmussen said. “The development that she has shown is so much like her father Gun Runner. The longer you had him, the faster he was and that’s how she’s been. As great as she ran in the Honorable Miss and coming out of her first triple-digit Beyer, your confidence was it was a prep. She’s 4-for-4 here at Saratoga and has another Grade 1 win on her resume. Obviously, she’s as fast as a horse can go.
“Poor Gunite has had to work with her the majority of his life and we know who he is,” added Asmussen. “So if she’s not scared of Gunite, I don’t know who else would be out there to worry about.”
Goodnight Olive, who won this event last year en route to year-end honors, broke alertly from post 6 under Irad Ortiz, Jr. and raced to the outside of Echo Zulu, who marked the opening quarter-mile in 22.45 seconds over the muddy and sealed track with multiple Grade 1-winner Matareya saving ground in third and Dr B in fourth.
Echo Zulu held a narrow advantage through a half-mile in 45.23 with last year’s Ballerina runner-up Caramel Swirl making an outside move and Matareya advancing on the rail. But a determined Echo Zulu responded well when asked by Geroux at the head of the lane and put away Goodnight Olive inside the final furlong, stopping the clock in a final time of 1:20.95
Goodnight Olive completed the exacta by 6 1/4-lengths over Matareya with Caramel Swirl, Dr B, Sterling Silver and Maryquitecontrary rounding out the order of finish. Wicked Halo was scratched.
Geroux said he felt confident throughout.
“She was picking it up nicely when I asked her to. Felt like I was in control pretty much all the way through the race, and when I asked her turning for home, she gave me this other gear,” Geroux said. “She’s amazing. I’m just very grateful for the opportunity the owners and Steve Asmussen have given me to ride her. She’s a champion and I’m just the lucky pilot.”
Ortiz, Jr., the Spa’s leading rider, tipped his cap to the winner.
“We had a beautiful trip. No excuses. It was a perfect trip, we were just second best,” Ortiz, Jr. said.
Echo Zulu graduated on debut here in July 2021 and captured the Spa’s Grade 1 Spinaway in her next start. She completed a perfect juvenile season with Grade 1 scores in the Frizette at Belmont Park and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Del Mar to earn honors as Champion 2-Year-Old Filly.
Last year, she captured the Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks before her only career off-the-board effort when fourth in the nine-furlong Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs. Echo Zulu exited that effort to win the Grade 3 Dogwood at Churchill but was a distant second to Goodnight Olive in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint.
Echo Zulu is perfect in three starts this year, taking the Grade 3 Winning Colors in May at Churchill ahead of her 7 1/4-length romp in the Honorable Miss.
“Obviously her prep race for this race she ran phenomenal,” said winning co-owner Ron Winchell. “We were expecting a little bit of the same. They pressured her early and she found another gear, which is what we were hoping would happen, and pulled away. So it was pretty nice, it doesn’t always work out how you plan it, and that’s how it came out today.”
Bred in Kentucky by Betz/J. Betz/Burns/CHNNHK/Magers/CoCo Equine/Ramsby, Echo Zulu was a $300,000 purchase at the 2020 Keeneland September Yearling Sale. She banked $275,000 in victory while improving her record to 11-9-1-0 and returned $3.20 for a $2 win bet.