02/01/2015 10:37AM

Watchmaker: Ocean Knight, The Great War score early wins on Derby trail

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Talking Kentucky Derby the last weekend of January is not dissimilar from putting up Christmas decorations before Halloween. Premature is the word that comes to mind. It’s so early that it’s hard to believe much of what you’re seeing now will have any real meaning come the first Saturday in May. But this is the way of American racing. And at least on Saturday, we saw two Derby aspirants in Ocean Knight and The Great War who are perfectly likable, even at this very early stage.

For my money, Ocean Knight, who won the Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs, is the stronger of the two and not by a small margin. Ocean Knight certainly was no surprise Saturday. He was 8-5 in a field of 12 despite the fact he had raced only once before in a straight maiden sprint and, thus, was up significantly in both class and distance.

What Ocean Knight showed Saturday, however, was probably more than even his connections anticipated. He demonstrated seasoning far beyond what anyone could expect from a once-raced colt, absorbing a trip that saw him caught four to five wide on the first turn and three wide on the far turn, and yet, he still got up in time.

How significant was Ocean Knight’s ground loss? According to Trakus, he ran 49 feet more than the narrowly beaten runner-up Divining Rod. The third, fourth, and fifth finishers in the Davis lost by margins ranging from 5 1/4 lengths to 6 3/4 lengths, even though Ocean Knight ran 24, 36, and 63 feet more than they did.

There were no tales of tough trips and ground loss for The Great War in the 96 Rock Stakes at Turfway. He simply contested the pace two wide. The Great War didn’t beat anyone either; in fact, his opposition was very soft. Nevertheless, The Great War’s 7 1/4-length romp while well in hand was an intriguing first start back for a colt who when last seen, finished fourth after middle moving in a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile that is looking stronger with each passing week.

Still, there is something about The Great War that gnaws at me: distance. Before he was sent to the U.S. last fall for his shot at the Breeders’ Cup, he competed strictly in sprints. The Great War made his first seven (seven!) career starts in Ireland and England for trainer Aidan O’Brien, and not once in Europe did he compete in a race beyond 6 1/2 furlongs. O’Brien’s no fool. Given how, and how often, he campaigned this colt, it makes you wonder if, no matter how decent his Breeders’ Cup effort wound up being, he pegged The Great War as a sprinter.

Other Saturday notes

Take Charge Brandi, last year’s Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old filly, won again, making it four straight in Oaklawn’s Martha Washington. But it wasn’t pretty. Sarah Sis, the one who figured to keep Take Charge Brandi honest in front early, missed the break and was last going into the first turn. Take Charge Brandi wound up coasting on an uncontested lead, and yet Sarah Sis somehow still managed to run her to a head. I can’t remember the last defending champion who was as vulnerable into a new year as Take Charge Brandi seems in her division right now.

Callback was a determined, front-running winner of the Grade 1 Las Virgenes at Santa Anita, but this was another race in which ground loss was critical. (Really, on a fair track, is there any race where ground loss isn’t critical?) Runner-up Light the City was beaten only a half-length in the Las Virgenes even though, after being wide throughout, she ran 50 feet more than Callback, according to Trakus.

Let me join the chorus of those wondering how the Las Virgenes enjoys a Grade 1 ranking. The Silverbulletday Stakes, run in January at Fair Grounds, always draws a field that is very comparable in quality to the Las Virgenes, and yet that race is ungraded. Last month’s Silverbulletday had a much stronger field than this Las Virgenes.

I’m one who believes that, for the most part, the U.S. graded stakes system works – for the most part. But there always will be isolated quibbles.

There were those who were left flat by Shared Belief’s narrow win in the Malibu over a 72-1 shot opening day at Santa Anita and said it was proof that Shared Belief is a better synthetic track horse. I actually thought that win was a feather in Shared Belief’s cap because he not only was cutting back to the seven furlongs of the Malibu from the 10 furlongs of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he also was cutting back off starts at nine, 10, and nine furlongs before the Breeders’ Cup. Let me make it clear right here that I’m not comparing the two in any way, shape, or form. But what Shared Belief showed in the Malibu was Forego-like versatility.

Well, Shared Belief’s Malibu got a big boost when that 72-1 runner up, Conquest Two Step, came back to win the Palos Verdes going away over a strong field. Yes, Conquest Two Step got a great pace setup Saturday, and the Palos Verdes runner up Secret Circle ran huge after being part of the pace battle (wow, did he ever turn his form around with blinkers on). But still …

Finally, a word about the disqualification of Hard Not to Like from first in Tampa’s Endeavour Stakes. There is no doubt that Hard Not to Like came out late and impeded the runner-up Testa Rossi. But I don’t think it is all as cut and dried as seemingly everyone else does.

My question is: Would Testa Rossi have gotten up if the incident did not occur? The incident happened so late that I seriously doubt Testa Rossi had the time to get up even if Hard Not to Like didn’t come out. Should that weigh into a stewards’ decision? It’s an interesting discussion.