Playful McCraken Sitting on ‘Go’ For Kentucky Derby
By Jordan Sigmon
Whitham Thoroughbreds LLC’s Kentucky Derby (GI) contender McCraken comes into the classic race as one of the leading contenders, despite his disappointing third-place finish in the Blue Grass Stakes (GII) most recently. Prior to that race, the son of Ghostzapper had won the Sam F. Davis Stakes (GIII) at Tampa Bay Downs and unfortunately missed an intended start in the Tampa Bay Derby (GII) in 2017. Also all three of his starts in 2016 were at Churchill Downs, each resulting in victory.
McCraken’s trainer, Ian Wilkes, says he could not be any happier with how his charge is coming into the race.
“The horse is doing great, he’s matured a lot, and he’s just getting better and better,” Wilkes said. You have to keep improving, always. If your horse isn’t getting better, you don’t belong here.”
McCraken is a horse with no lack of personality according to his trainer, but that doesn’t mean he’s getting any preferential treatment around the barn. He must behave, just like the other runners who won’t be in the Run for the Roses.
“He’s a very playful boy, he has a good time and is just a good feeling horse,” the conditioner explained. I’ve actually had to revoke his grazing privileges recently. If I try to take him out there to graze he just plays around and rears up the entire time.”
While this year marks Wilkes’ first Kentucky Derby starter on his own, he did play an essential part in the development of Derby winners Unbridled (1990) and Street Sense (2007) while serving as assistant to Hall of Famer Carl Nafzger.
“The lessons I learned from working with Carl while he had Street Sense, as well as Unbridled, were extremely valuable,” Wilkes said. “The biggest thing is I have to focus on what my horse is telling me, not what everybody else is saying or doing. And at the end of the day, you just have to have a good time with it.”
This is not the first big horse Wilkes has trained for McCraken’s owner, having also trained 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) winner Fort Larned for the connections.
“It’s very exciting to have another horse of this level with the Whithams,” Wilkes said. “Mrs. Whitham is just a class act. To have another horse of this caliber is incredible, they’re few and far between, and it’s truly an honor.”
Now with McCraken headed into the Derby as the early favorite, all the hard work is done and Wilkes remains confident he has a horse who is up to the task.
“Of course I expect him to run well,” the trainer said. “You know you just have to be confident and happy with where you are and where your horse is. I’m not going to enter if I’m not confident.”
On Wednesdya, McCraken drew post 15 in a field of 20 for the Kentucky Derby, a spot in the gate that is very pleasing to Wilkes.
“It’s a good draw; I’m happy with it,” he said. “He’s the first stall in the auxiliary gate, so there’s a little extra space between the horse and us inside of us which is nice. It’s better than the 1-2-3 holes, so that’s good.”
Also, the draw is unlikely to affect the race strategy for McCraken, Wilkes said.
“I won’t have to give Brian (jockey Brian Hernandez Jr.) as many instructions now, I can just let him ride.”
And check out current odds for the entire Derby field: