02/04/2015 2:52PM

Derby Watch: This time McLaughlin has the numbers

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Barbara D. Livingston
Classy Class, who is targeting the Withers at Aqueduct on Saturday, is one of four 3-year-olds trained by Kiaran McLaughlin among the 20 runners in the inaugural Derby Watch.

Both Kiaran McLaughlin and Todd Pletcher came up under D. Wayne Lukas, the trainer who has the most starters in the history of the Kentucky Derby. But the approaches McLaughlin and Pletcher have taken toward the Derby have differed sharply.

Pletcher is now up to second, behind only Lukas, in overall number of Derby starters, 47-40. McLaughlin has had just five starters.

Yet as the countdown begins toward the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 2, it is McLaughlin who holds one of the strongest hands. Pletcher, who leads all trainers in Triple Crown nominees this year with 34, landed four of the 20 runners on this year’s inaugural Daily Racing Form Derby Watch. But McLaughlin, who has only eight of his 3-year-olds nominated to the Triple Crown, also finds four of his runners in the top 20.

“We’ve never had anywhere close to what we have at this point this year,” McLaughlin said by phone from Florida, where he is based in the winter. “I feel like Todd Pletcher.”

:: DERBY WATCH: Top 20 list | Kentucky Derby: Who's hot, who's not

Lukas has won the Derby four times. Pletcher has won the Derby once. McLaughlin has yet to win it. He came closest with his first starter, Closing Argument, who was second in 2005.

McLaughlin’s four Derby Watch runners are Classy Class, Frosted, Imperia, and Ocean Knight.

Ocean Knight raced most recently, capturing the Sam F. Davis Stakes last Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs while making only the second start of his career. The Sam F. Davis followed a win sprinting on the inner track at Aqueduct. Ocean Knight had an outside post in the Sam F. Davis and was forced to race wide but still got up to winwith a 93 Beyer Figure.

“What did I think of the race? Wow,” McLaughlin said. “As long as I’ve been training, I haven’t had a horse get a 6 on the Ragozins first time, and to go from that to a two-turn race, drawn post 11, and race as wide as he did, wow.”

Regarding the wide trip in the 1 1/16-mile race, McLaughlin joked, “I guess we found out he can go a mile and a quarter,” referring to the Derby distance.

Ocean Knight was ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr., who is assigned to three of McLaughlin’s Derby Watch runners. The lone exception is Imperia, who will be ridden by Mike Smith in the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds on Feb. 21 only because Ortiz is tied up with Frosted the same day in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream.

“I told Irad he can’t be too clever,” McLaughlin said of the ride aboard Ocean Knight in the Sam F. Davis. “If you’re out there in the clear and you have to lose ground, fine. Don’t worry, you’re on the best horse.”

McLaughlin said Ocean Knight will return to Tampa Bay Downs for the Tampa Bay Derby on March 7.

“The timing works well,” he said. “It’s five weeks to his next race, and then it would be four weeks to the Wood Memorial or the Blue Grass.”

Next up for McLaughlin will be Classy Class, who is scheduled to run Saturday in the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct, assuming the weather cooperates. Classy Classy, like Ocean Knight, won his debut, but he could only manage to finish fourth in his second start, the Remsen Stakes. This will be his first start since then.

:: ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays

“He was very impressive in his first start,” McLaughlin said. “In his second start, he caught a speed-biased track, but it was a very good effort.”

McLaughlin said he was originally pointing Classy Class for the Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct last month, but a foot problem derailed those plans.

“He pulled a shoe off behind and broke off part of the wall,” McLaughlin said. “He was lame behind for a few days, so we had to miss the race. It was just bad timing. But we’ve put three good works into him since. He’s ready to go now.”

Frosted was second in the Remsen, then last month finished second in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream.

Imperia has not raced since finishing second in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs in November. That race was won by El Kabeir, who came back to take the Jerome and is the likely favorite in the Withers.

The Withers is one of two races Saturday offering points toward the Kentucky Derby under the system used by Churchill Downs to determine the Derby field should more than the maximum of 20 horses enter. The other is the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita, scheduled to include Derby Watch members Dortmund and Firing Line, both making their first start since finishing one-two in the Los Alamitos Futurity in December. Both the Withers and Lewis are at 1 1/16 miles.

Dortmund is the co-third choice at 12-1 on the Derby Watch future line set by Mike Watchmaker, DRF ’s national handicapper. Texas Red, the winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, is the tepid favorite on Watchmaker’s line at 8-1, with Holy Bull winner Upstart next at 10-1. The other 12-1 shots are American Pharoah, the Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old male, and Carpe Diem, the BC Juvenile runner-up.

Of McLaughlin’s four runners, three – Frosted, Imperia, and Ocean Knight – are at 20-1 on Watchmaker’s line, with Classy Class at 30-1.