Regardless what happened in the final days of the 2021 Saratoga meeting, trainer Steve Asmussen was going to leave upstate New York with quite the haul of accolades to take back to his Kentucky base.
A month ago, he notched an achievement that may never be challenged in his lifetime when he became North America’s all-time winningest trainer after saddling the filly Stellar Tap to her maiden victory at the Spa on Aug. 7. On Travers Stakes (G1) day, Asmussen celebrated a pair of Grade 1 victories when Yaupon and Jackie’s Warrior prevailed in the Forego and H. Allen Jerkens Stakes, respectively, and if that all wasn’t enough, he then watched the improving Max Player stamp himself as a contender for this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) when the dark bay colt captured the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) on the evening of Sept. 4.
A big reason why Asmussen reigns as the most prolific trainer in the game is because he never for one second thinks that his work is done. So on the penultimate day of one of the sport’s most prestigious meets, the Hall of Famer wrangled his emotions together once more in a glorious package as one of his youngest stars added yet another milestone to what was already a meet for the ages for her barn.
Just over four years to the day after Gun Runner captured the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes at Saratoga en route to being named the 2017 Horse of the Year, Asmussen found himself still reaping the benefits of his former trainee’s talent. Echo Zulu, a daughter of the Three Chimneys Farm stallion, gave Asmussen his fourth top-level win of the meet and became the first Grade 1 winner by her sire when she rolled to four-length victory in the $300,000 Spinaway Stakes at Saratoga on Sept. 5.
Gun Runner headed into the weekend already atop the first-crop sire list with ten winners from his first 26 starters and more than $869,000 in progeny earnings. The precocity his babies have flaunted thus far was on full display Sunday as Echo Zulu headed every point of call in the seven-furlong Spinaway while finishing up under jockey Ricardo Santana, Jr. like she was firing off a warning shot of what could be on the horizon for her future rivals.
“I can’t measure how much I wanted to have Gun Runner’s first Grade 1 winner,” a jubilant Asmussen said. “Everything he done for the barn, he’s obviously a tremendous sire and somebody had to be first, but I’m glad it was us.
“Ricardo (Santana, Jr.) said after he came back, ‘I thought they let us get away with going a little slow but then I looked back and saw the times. She’s just very fast, very easy.’ To jump from maidens to a Grade 1 off one run in a race with everything going your way is not easy. It takes a special horse to do it and maybe that’s what she is.”
High regard has been something Echo Zulu has carried with her for most of her young life. The bay filly was purchased for $300,000 by co-owner Winchell Thoroughbreds out of the 2020 Keeneland September Yearling Sale and had shined while coming up through Asmussen’s parents’ training center in Laredo, Texas.
A half-sister to Grade 1 winner Echo Town, Echo Zulu was sublime in her debut, winning by 5 ½ lengths going 5 ½ furlongs at Saratoga on July 15. That effort earned her 3-5 favoritism from the betting public on Sunday and she ran to such billing, taking command out of post No. 3 and covering the opening quarter-mile in :22.07 as longshot Benbang rated off her flank in second.
“I had so much confidence that I only wore two goggles for seven furlongs,” Santana said. “She was working real nice and today she improved a lot. I had plenty in the tank. I never hit her. She was running on strong.”
Benbang was still trying to push the matter as Echo Zulu reached the half-mile mark in :44.73, but Santana had barely moved on his mount at that point. At the top of the stretch, Santana shook the reins at his partner and enjoyed the ride to his fourth Grade 1 win of the meet as they stopped the teletimer in 1:22.51 over a track rated fast.
“At the top of the stretch, you’re looking at 44 for the half and thinking how does she stay up? But she found another gear and finished up in 1:22 on a pretty slow track today,” said Michael Levinson of L and N Racing, who co-owns Echo Zulu along with Winchell Thoroughbreds. “This was absolutely incredible. She and (Echo Town) both won a Grade 1 at Saratoga going seven furlongs. Obviously, she’s a year younger. It looks like the sky is the limit for her. We’re going to enjoy the win and see what happens. Steve will have to decide where she goes next.”
Tarabi ran on well to get place honors behind Echo Zulu with Saucy Lady T third. Pretty Birdie, the second betting choice and winner of Grade 3 Schuylerville Stakes, was eased across the line in the field of nine by jockey Luis Saez but trainer Norm Casse said the filly appeared to be moving sound in the immediate aftermath.
“Luis said he pressed her a little bit at the three-eighths pole and she wasn’t responding, so he just wrapped up with her and took care of her,” Casse said. “I watched her jog back and she’s sound and it didn’t look like she bled.”
Out of the Menifee mare Letgomyecho, Echo Zulu improved her career earnings to $220,000 and is likely to make her next start in Grade 1, $400,000 Frizette on Oct. 3 at Belmont Park – a one-turn mile offering a “Win and You’re In” berth to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.
“That looked like it would translate to the Frizette pretty good to me and that would hopefully be the bridge (to the Breeders’ Cup),” Asmussen said. “To suggest what she can’t do right now would probably be a mistake.”