For my money (figure of speech because I rarely bet) the first week in March is the most exciting time of the year in Thoroughbred horse racing, more so than the week leading up to the Kentucky Derby. By Derby Week we may not know who’s going to win the big race, but we generally know who could be great and who will never be. The “could be great” crowd of three-year-olds is pretty small by that week and may be nonexistent after the race.
It’s a much bigger crowd at this point, but it’s probably going to get a lot smaller by this coming weekend so I’m spending time savoring the possibilities. There are still some unbeaten horses of quality and a few more once-beaten who can be forgiven for their losses. The next Secretariat or Man o’ War could be in the group. Okay, probably not, but we don’t know until they prove otherwise.
Saturday’s Tampa Bay Derby has two of the “until they prove otherwise” possibilities. Carpe Diem, who cost $1.6 million as a yearling, has won two of his three starts. But the sole loss came in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, puncturing his reputation as a possible super horse. Still, he closed well to be second and is, by all standards, bred to go the classic distances.
He’ll face another horse who hasn’t yet proved he isn’t great. Ocean Knight, who cost a mere $320,000 as a yearling, is unbeaten in two starts. He hasn’t faced top level stakes company yet, so a major question will be answered Saturday. He is a son of the great Curlin, the winner of $10 million, able to get the classic distances and then some, and now a great source for stamina at stud. A lot of us would be thrilled to see Curlin become the sire of a great horse.
Probably the most interesting horse in the great-or-not showdown this weekend is Dortmund. He won his first two starts as a two-year in spectacular fashion, then won two stakes races through determination as much as speed. In his last start, Dortmund did what horses—especially young ones—never do: he came back to win after being passed in the stretch. He didn’t show breathtaking speed, but his level of fortitude is remarkable Dortmund remains a candidate for greatness, at least until Saturday’s San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita. I love this time of year!