Making the grade: Ocean Knight, winner of the Sam F. Davis Stakes
Making the Grade, which will run through the 2015 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners of the big races, usually from the previous weekend, who could impact the next Triple Crown. We'll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win important races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey) and pedigree.
This week we take a closer look at Ocean Knight, winner of the $201,500 Sam F. Davis Stakes on Jan. 31 at Tampa Bay Downs.
This is the time of year when talented Kentucky Derby prospects start to demonstrate serious potential. In recent years we've seen lightly raced contenders rise up Kentucky Derby lists with a powerhouse performance. In February 2007, a physically impressive 3-year-old named Curlin won his career debut at Gulfstream Park and followed with a graded stakes victory in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park to kick-start a Horse of the Year season. Ocean Knight, a son of Curlin, won his career debut on Dec. 13 at Aqueduct and on Saturday stamped himself a contender for the U.S. Triple Crown races with a victory in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes. Can he follow in his sire's hoofsteps? Let's take a closer look at Ocean Knight.
Ability: A $320,000 purchase at the 2014 OBS March sale of 2-year-olds in training, Ocean Knight won his Dec. 13 debut by 4¼ lengths in a visually impressive victory at six furlongs. Ocean Knight earned a 106 Equibase Speed Figure for his debut, which put him in elite company. Stretching out to 1 1/16 miles for the Sam F. Davis didn't figure to be an issue for a son of a Preakness and Breeders' Cup Classic winner, and Ocean Knight was up to the challenge in a graded stakes as he outfinished Divining Rod to win by a neck. It would have been nice to see him duplicate or slightly improve upon the speed figure he earned in his debut in the Sam F. Davis, but the 102 he earned was close enough. Plus, you don't want to see a horse this lightly raced run too fast too soon. The Sam Davis was a strong season debut that should set him up to continue to progress, and he doesn't have too far to go â nine points to match Upstart's top stakes speed figure for a 3-year-old in 2015 â to be right there with the best of his peers. The 102 speed figure is tied for third on the Equibase Speed Figure list for 3-year-olds in stakes races and Ocean Knight has raced only twice.
Running style: In his six-furlong career debut, Ocean Knight broke sharply and settled into a comfortable rhythm under Irad Ortiz Jr. He was 3½ lengths back after a quarter-mile and a length back after a half-mile. In that race, he went from fourth to 3½ lengths clear in the blink of an eye. Ocean Knight did not get away to as good of a start in the 1 1/16-mile Sam F. Davis Stakes. He used his speed to move up to fourth in an attempt to save some ground, but still got hung out wide after starting from post position 11. He raced in fifth after the first quarter-mile then moved up third, where he remained until launching his winning bid on the far turn. Ocean Knight is ratable with enough speed to be able to put himself in good position. That should be useful as the distances get longer and the talent gets better on the Kentucky Derby trail, where a clear trip can be the difference between a victory and an unplaced finish.
Connections: Ocean Knight's owner, Stonestreet Stables, is probably best known for racing two-time Horse of the Year Curlin in partnership before buying out the other part-owners and 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra in partnership with Harold McCormick. The Stonestreet racing and breeding operation was founded by Jess Jackson, a lawyer turned visionary winemaker who built Kendall-Jackson into one of the leading wineries in the U.S. Jackson died of complications from cancer on April 21, 2011. Jackson's wife, Barbara Banke, has continued to grow the Stonestreet legacy since his death. In addition to Curlin and Rachel Alexandra, Stonestreet has raced alone or in partnership standouts such as champion My Miss Aurelia, Grade 1 winner Dreaming of Julia and current Grade 1-winning 3-year-old Carpe Diem.
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin's best finish to date from five Kentucky Derby starters was a runner-up with Closing Argument in 2005. McLaughlin won the Belmont Stakes in 2006 with Jazil and also trainer that year's Horse of the Year Invasor. McLaughlin has amassed 134 graded stakes wins from 225 stakes wins through Feb. 2. His runners have 1,233 victories and more than $88.8-million in purse earnings since he took out his trainer's license in 1995. McLaughlin was an assistant to Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas and also trained horses in Dubai for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum.
Irad Ortiz Jr. has quickly developed into one of the top riders on the New York circuit along with his brother Jose. Irad Ortiz has won 845 races through Feb. 2, including 29 graded stakes victories among 81 stakes wins. Ortiz finished 14th aboard Uncle Sigh in his first Kentucky Derby last year. He earned his first Breeders' Cup win in 2014 when he guided Lady Eli to victory in the Juvenile Fillies Turf.
His other top runners to date include Grade 1 winners Questing, Poseidon's Warrior, Swagger Jack, Capo Bastone, Havana and Sweet Reason.
Pedigree: Ocean Knight is from the third crop of 2007 Preakness Stakes and Breeders' Cup Classic winner Curlin, who also won the 2007 Dubai World Cup and was named Horse of the Year in 2007 and 2008. Curlin's son Palace Malice won the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes in 2013 and last year Ride On Curlin finished second in both the Arkansas Derby and Preakness. Ocean Knight gets a healthy dose of both stamina and class from his sire.
Ocean Knight is the first starter produced by his dam (mother) Ocean Goddess, by Stormy Atlantic. Ocean Goddess was unplaced in four stakes races. She won three of 13 starts, including a victory at 1 1/16 miles on the main track at Belmont Park.
Ocean Knight's grandam (maternal grandmother), War Goddess, was unraced but produced Libby's Halo, a stakes-winning sprinter on the grass. His third dam (maternal great-grandmother), Gallant Libby, by Gallant Knave, was a three-time stakes winner, including the one-mile Pocahontas Stakes at Churchill Downs. Gallant Libby is the dam of four stakes winners, including graded stakes winners Winter Melody and Godmother. Winter Melody won the Grade 3 Long Lock Breeders' Cup Stakes, the Marlboro Handicap and twice won the Obeah Handicap, all at 1 1/8 miles on the main track. Godmother won three stakes sprinting, including the Grade 3 Safely Kept Stakes at Laurel Park.
There is enough class and stamina in the bottom half of this pedigree that, combined with Curlin on the top, makes Ocean Knight an intriguing prospect for the Triple Crown races. If he improves, even just a little, in his next start, Ocean Knight should be in just about everyone's Kentucky Derby top 10. I have him in mine now.