Ian Wilkes says his role in helping McCraken get to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands at Churchill Downs on May 6 is relatively simple.
“I’ve just got to stay out of his way and let him take me,” Wilkes said this morning.
The unbeaten (4-for-4) 3-year-old colt raised his connections’ optimism several notches Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs, winning the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes by a length-and-a-half from Tapwrit. State of Honor finished third, another length back, with Wild Shot fourth and the other five well in arrears.
McCraken’s time for the mile-and-a-sixteenth distance under jockey Brian Hernandez, Jr., was 1:42.45, bettering the previous stakes and track record of 1:42.82 set by Destin in last year’s Grade II, $350,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby. McCraken carried top weight of 122 pounds, giving up between 2-to-6 pounds to his rivals.
Wilkes said it is likely McCraken will return to Oldsmar for the 37th edition of the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on March 11, the track’s Festival Day. “You can’t lock yourself into one place, but the timing is good to come back,” he said.
The son of Ghostzapper-Ivory Empress, by Seeking the Gold, is a homebred racing for the Whitham Thoroughbreds operation of Janis Whitham. She teamed with Wilkes and Hernandez to win the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita with her homebred Fort Larned, who prepped at Tampa Bay Downs earlier that year by winning the Challenger Stakes.
McCraken, named after a city in Kansas (spelled "McCracken") about 110 miles from Whitham’s hometown of Leoti, returned to Wilkes’ Palm Meadows Training Center base in Boynton Beach, Fla., on Saturday night. Wilkes said the colt walked and had a bath this morning and all signs are positive.
“It’s just a good thing to get him back in action and get him going as a 3-year-old, and the way he ran makes you feel like he proved a little more,” Wilkes said. “A lot of 3-year-olds on the Derby trail keep getting better and bigger and stronger this time of year, so we have to keep going.
“I’ve always said he’s going to take me to (the Kentucky Derby) if he’s good enough, and it’s exciting any time you have a horse with Derby potential.”
Should McCraken get back to Churchill Downs, where he was 3-for-3 last year, he would be Wilkes’ first starter in the Kentucky Derby. But Wilkes was a part of Hall of Fame trainer Carl Nafzger’s two victories in the Run for the Roses, galloping Unbridled in 1990 and playing an even larger role in the development of 2007 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands winner Street Sense, who won the Tampa Bay Derby in then-track-record time of 1:43.11 before his Louisville triumph.
Street Sense and Super Saver (2010), who finished third in the Tampa Bay Derby, are the only Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands winners to prepare at Tampa Bay Downs.
Tapwrit was almost as impressive Saturday, showing good energy in deep stretch under jockey Jose Ortiz to finish a clear second. Trainer Todd Pletcher said via text Sunday that Tapwrit could return for the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, which awards 50, 20, 10 and 5 points to the first four finishers toward qualifying for a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate.
“He’s improving all the time,” said Pletcher, who could also bring his 5-year-old mare Isabella Sings back for the Grade II, $200,000 Hillsborough Stakes on the turf after her scintillating Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes victory. “I will get with the connections, but both are possible for March 11.”
No Dozing, the 7-2 third choice in the Sam F. Davis wagering, never found his best stride and finished sixth. Trainer Arnaud Delacour said the Grade II Remsen Stakes runner-up came back in fine fettle and offered no excuses for his dull performance.
“He seems fine. He just had a bad race, but I don’t really know why,” Delacour said. “We’ll see in the next couple of days. I’m a little disappointed, but we still would consider the Tampa Bay Derby if he breezes well. He needs to show me there are no problems.”
Around the oval. The Tampa Bay Downs stakes schedule resumes Saturday with a pair of traditional six-furlong sprint races, the $100,000 Pelican Stakes for horses 4-years-old-and-upward and the $50,000 Minaret Stakes for fillies and mares 4-and-up.
Nominations closed last week, with the Pelican attracting 16 candidates and the Minaret luring 20 nominees. Among the Pelican nominees are trainer Kathleen O’Connell’s 6-year-old Early Entry, the winner of the recent Sunshine Millions Sprint Stakes at Gulfstream; 6-year-old Candip, a multiple-stakes winner trained by Michael Tomlinson; and 4-year-old Awesome Banner, a multiple-stakes winner from the barn of Mark Casse.
The Minaret nominees are headed by 7-year-old mare You Bought Her, who has won the last two editions of the race for trainer and co-owner David Hinsley, and No Fault of Mine, a 5-year-old mare trained by Chris Block who won the mile-and-a-sixteenth Wayward Lass Stakes here on Jan. 21.
Ronnie Allen, Jr., rode three winners today. He won the first race on Odessa Wind, a 5-year-old mare owned by Jack Cannon and trained by Luis R. Dominguez. Allen was back in clover in the sixth aboard 5-year-old mare Candy War, owned and trained by Justin Johns.
The veteran rider completed his hat trick in the 10th and final race with Whole, a 5-year-old homebred gelding owned by Claiborne Farm and Adele B. Dilschneider and trained by Kathleen O’Connell.
Leading jockey Daniel Centeno and Jesus Castanon each rode two winners on today’s card. Centeno won the fourth race on 4-year-old filly Ides of Marchann, owned by Stephen Sinatra and trained by Bill Sienkewicz. Centeno came right back in the fifth on the turf aboard 3-year-old filly Naifah for owner James A. Duncan and trainer Wayne Mogge.
Castanon captured the third race on Triple Crown nominee Monaco, a 3-year-old colt owned by Derrick Smith, Repole Stable, Michael Tabor and Mrs. John Magnier and trained by Todd Pletcher. Castanon returned to the winner’s circle after the seventh race on the turf with 3-year-old colt Big Bend, owned by Union Rags Racing and trained by Tom Proctor.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Wednesday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. The track conducts racing Wednesday through Sunday throughout February.
Tampa Bay Downs is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action and tournament play in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.