Mercedes Stable's fast-improving Indian Ocean made the four-horse Affirmed Handicap (gr. III) a surprisingly exciting affair, outlasting his more experienced rivals in a tenacious victory Saturday for 3-year-olds at Hollywood Park.
Making his stakes debut, Indian Ocean edged even-money choice Surf Cat by a neck in the 1 1/16-mile test. Dover Dere ran third and Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) winner Buzzards Bay, making his first start since a fifth-place showing in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), tired late to finish last at odds of 6-5.
Trained by Jay Robbins, Indian Ocean, a Florida-bred son of Stormy Atlantic
-Indian Halo (Halo), won his third straight race. Jon Court has been in the irons in all four of the bay colt's starts.
The final time was a solid 1:42 2/5.
Dover Dere set the early pace with Patrick Valenzuela aboard, clipping off fractions of :23 1/5 and :46 2/5 as Indian Ocean and Surf Cat, Alex Solis riding, tracked on Dover Dere's outside. Indian Ocean and Surf Cat pressed on the outside as Buzzards Bay and Victor Espinoza tried to squeeze through along the inside. As they came off the far turn the field was spread evenly four across the track.
Buzzards Bay got through along the inside after steadying briefly but was the first to give way in the final furlong. Dover Dere, too, could not match strides late, leaving Indian Ocean and Surf Cat to fight it out to the wire. Indian Ocean prevailed under moderate urging.
Robbins captured his third Affirmed victory, previously winning with Tiznow in 2000 and Raise a Stanza in 1989.
"He's more composed than Tiznow at this point," Robbins said. "But Tiznow, I learned from him. We bring (Indian Ocean) over here (from Santa Anita) early to gallop and spend a couple days. School him over here. I didn't do that with Tiznow. And I think that got to him in the Swaps when Captain Steve beat him. But he's not Tiznow."
Indian Ocean's only loss came in his maiden debut when he finished third, 8 1/2 lengths behind Surf Cat April 9.
Saturday's victory was worth $63,060, doubling Indian Ocean's earnings to $125,940. George Isaacs and Lee Ann Isaacs bred the winner, who paid $12.40 and $3.80. Surf Cat returned $2.80 and completed a $26.40 exacta.
Khyber Pass and Sultry Bard scratched.