Zulu Alpha heads into Saturday's Grade 2, $200,000 Pan American Stakes at Gulfstream Park as the deserving favorite with an ongoing two-race winning streak, similar to how he started his campaign last year.
However, looking closer at those two recent races and his effort last November in the Breeders' Cup Turf, there is reason to believe he has moved forward as a 7-year-old gelding.
Sure, Zulu Alpha will face a different sort of class test later this season once European turf stars ship for the important summer and fall races. While part of Zulu Alpha's recent ascent has been due to the lack of older turf marathon stars, there's also evidence of an improved former claim, still relatively new to his current barn, in career-best form.
In 2018 when Zulu Alpha competed in mostly allowance races, the following statement seemed unimaginable. But with the right campaign, Zulu Alpha could become one of the leading contenders for the Turf Eclipse Award by the end of the year.
Simply compare the horses Zulu Alpha beat to open his campaign in the Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1) and Mac Diarmida (G2) to last year's W. L. McKnight Stakes (G3) and Mac Diarmida. Also study the margins, as they are noticeably improved.
In the 2019 W. L. McKnight, Zulu Alpha won by half a length and beat Soglio, Hunting Horn, Hunter O'Riley and other average names. For the win, he earned a 122 TimeformUS speed figure.
As for the 2019 Mac Diarmida, Zula Alpha won by ¾ of a length with Melmich, Kulin Rock and Channel Maker completing the superfecta. The last name is notable and competitive at the Grade 1 level, but he also throws clunkers. Zulu Alpha recived a 116 from TimeformUS.
Fast forward to two months ago in the Pegasus World Cup Turf. Zulu Alpha won by two lengths over the globe-trotting Magic Wand, who has proved competitive against the best turf horses in the world. Instilled Regard finished third followed by Sacred Life, Arklow and Sadler's Joy.
Granted, Zulu Alpha also saved ground and enjoyed an inside opening in the stretch run. Still, he ran too well to knock the effort as a one-off. Notice that Zulu Alpha also steadied early because of the traffic and won anyway.
A month later, Zulu Alpha won this year's Mac Diarmida by one length. In this edition, he defeated Admission Office, Sadler's Joy, Channel Maker and Spooky Channel, the 2020 McKnight hero.
In fairness, Zulu Alpha settled in last early and took advantage of a fast pace. TimeformUS marked every fraction in red, indicating a setup.
Regardless, he won again like a good horse, and the numbers -- 128 in both starts this season -- back that up.
The small increase in margins are noticeable as well. Instead of winning by half a length or ¾ of a length, Zulu Alpha has been winning with a one or two-length separation, which is a decisive margin on the turf.
Plus, Zulu Alpha closed for fourth in the Breeders' Cup Turf last year. He only lost by 1 ¾ of a length to Horse of the Year Bricks and Mortar and earned a 124 from TimeformUS.
The situation could change as time goes on, but the figures and charts say Zulu Alpha has moved forward into a bonafide runner over the lawn.
As for Saturday's Pan American, Zulu Alpha sees his weakest competition yet, as connections were initially looking to another Grade 1 before Churchill Downs pushed its Kentucky Derby week stakes back to summer. Here's what he's up against instead:
• Channel Cat finished a dismal 10th in the Pegasus Turf.
• Bemma's Boy lost his two recent starts in Grade 3 races.
• Spooky Channel was 11 ½ lengths behind Zulu Alpha in the Mac Diarmida.
• Current has not won since the 2018 Bourbon Stakes (G2).
• Go Poke the Bear lost a $50,000 claimer only last October.
• Galleon Mast's lone 2019 win came in a Florida-bred restricted stakes.
• Prince of Arabia finished seventh in Spooky Channel's W. L. McKnight win.
• Manicomio lost a starter allowance race this month.
• Defending champion Focus Group lost five times in a row after that win.
On paper, Zulu Alpha will win against this group with his “B” effort. That's not something we could have said before this gelding came of age, either.