LOUISVILLE — The difference between being good and being great can be heartbreakingly close.
The total distance Firing Line has been beaten in his four career losses measures less than 2 lengths — with two of those defeats coming by a head.
A couple of strides here and there, and the son of Line of David could have easily come into this weekend's Preakness Stakes as undefeated Kentucky Derby winner.
Instead, the well-built bay colt will board a flight to Baltimore on Wednesday alongside the two colts who have inflicted him the most angst during his short career.
In the moments after Firing Line's runner-up finish to American Pharoah in the Kentucky Derby, trainer Simon Callaghan said that his charge "has done everything right but win."
The colt's latest attempt at trying to right that result comes Saturday as Firing Line is set to face his Derby conqueror, another rival in Dortmund, and what could be a handful of others.
The overriding emotions Firing Line has inspired in his six-race career have been futility and pride. In the depth-laden crop of West Coast-based 3-year-olds this season, Arnold Zetcher's colt was in the top percentile, even if he had little in the win category to show for it.
Twice he was beaten by a head by Dortmund, first in the Grade I Los Alamitos Futurity in December and — most crushing — in the Grade II Robert B. Lewis in February when he had been a length ahead in the stretch.
Firing Line finally got the better of Dortmund in the first leg of the Triple Crown, finishing 2 lengths clear of the massive chestnut, who came home third after setting the pace.
Much as beating both Williams sisters in the same tennis tournament is often futile for foes, Firing Line just couldn't hold off Dortmund's champion stablemate despite masterful guidance just off the early fractions by jockey Gary Stevens.
"We got past Dortmund, and it was starting to feel a little bit like Alydar and Affirmed, and now we faced two Affirmeds instead of one in the Kentucky Derby," Stevens said. "Hopefully we can turn the tables on American Pharoah, the same as we did Dortmund. But believe me, I have plenty of respect for all three horses.
"A lot of people, because of his first two defeats by Dortmund, thought that he was a horse that likes to hang a little bit and maybe doesn't want to try in a battle, and I think that ... the Derby proved that people might have been mistaken. There was a lot of question about his ability to get the distance. He put that to rest."
Firing Line has continued to garner respect in a season when there have been a plethora of good 3-year-olds fighting for the same piece of real estate. He has also kept showing hints each time out that his next level of improvement could be the one that puts him over the top.
In the Kentucky Derby, Firing Line never did swap running leads during his stretch battle. The reason is something that both puzzles his connections and leaves them encouraged that a different outcome could have been had.
"Why he did not switch, I don't know," Stevens said. "I wasn't prepared for it because he had never shown me any inclination that he wouldn't before, but he was digging hard, he was trying.
"Another encouraging thing was his energy level pulling up after the Derby. He's the first horse that I've ridden in the Derby that he was still a fresh horse. The outrider had to help me pull him up."
Callaghan put Firing Line in position to have some fresh legs under him coming off the 10-furlong classic. The 32-year-old trainer wisely got his charge away from the heavy hitters and injected a confidence boost into him by sending him to the Grade III Sunland Derby on March 22, a spot where he romped by 141/4 lengths.
In the six weeks between that race and the Kentucky Derby, the colt also was more professional in his training.
"Simon did a great job managing this horse the last several months," Zetcher said. "We talked through how we are going to do six weeks between races, and he knew the horse so well. All the races he came in second, it was probably a length or two adding up. When I say he's one of the best horses I've ever had, it's because this horse is so consistent."
As proud as his caretakers were of his effort, there was no getting around the disappointment of falling just short of a Kentucky Derby triumph. An immediate lift in spirits came back at the barn, however, as Firing Line was screaming for his food and showing less stress than those who observed his run.
"I think the spacing that we had in our two prior races ... six weeks both times, I think it's actually going to help us out for the Preakness," Callaghan said. "We really like the signs and signals he's been showing us since the Kentucky Derby. He's done everything we'd like to see, and he's taken the race extremely well."
No Preakness for Pletcher
Seven-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher will have no starters in the Preakness. He informed Maryland Jockey Club officials Tuesday he would not send Grade I winner Materiality for the race.
Materiality finished sixth in the Kentucky Derby in what was just his fourth career start. Pletcher said the son of Afleet Alex, along with fellow Grade I winner Carpe Diem, would instead point for the Belmont Stakes on June 6.
"We were considering it very seriously. Basically, it came down to we just felt two weeks was a little bit risky," Pletcher said. "We felt five weeks to the Belmont would be an advantage for him. If you come back in two weeks and you turn out to be wrong, not only could you not run well in the Preakness, it could compromise your chances in the Belmont as well."
Javier Castellano, who rode Materiality in the Derby, will now pick up the mount on Grade III winner Divining Rod for the Preakness.