Talented Field Assembles For Blue Grass
By Jordan Sigmon
It’s been nearly 20 years since the Blue Grass Stakes (GII) was run at the grade 2 level, but in its first edition since being downgraded from grade 1 status, possibly the deepest field in a decade will line up. While it’s just a field of seven, four of the entrants are graded stakes winners, one is a stakes winner and the other two are multiple graded stakes-placed.
Headlining the field is Whitham Thoroughbreds LLC’s unbeaten Ian Wilkes trainee McCraken. A debut winner at Churchill in October, McCraken has since rattled off three consecutive stakes wins. In his second start, the son of Ghostzapper won the Street Sense Stakes over eventual LeComte Stakes (GIII) winner Guest Suite and in his graded stakes debut, the colt demonstrated a powerful turn of foot late and got up in time to win the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (GII) by 1 ¼ lengths. McCraken made his 3-year-old debut a winning one in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (GIII) at Tampa Bay in a field that included next-out Grade 2 winner Tapwrit, and Florida Derby (GI) runner-up State of Honor.
After missing the Tampa Bay Derby (GII) with a minor ankle injury, McCraken has come back to work strongly several times. McCraken would likely need to finish at least third in order to have enough points for the Kentucky Derby (GI) starting gate, however Wilkes said, “We don’t want to put too much pressure on him, he doesn’t have to win this race, but we’d like to win it because it is a very prestigious race.” Wilkes added that, “while this is definitely an important stepping stone, our main goal is the Derby, we’re just looking to get a solid race into him.”
While McCraken was on the sidelines, Bridlewood Farm, Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Robert V LaPenta’s Tapwrit stole the spotlight. After finishing second to McCraken in the Sam F. Davis, the $1.2 million yearling purchase rebounded with a 4 ½ length win in the Tampa Bay Derby, in a time just three-fifth of a second shy of the track record set by his older stablemate Stanford. Trainer Todd Pletcher was mulling whether to rest the colt and train up to the Derby but decided that the lightly raced colt could do with a little more experience.
Assistant trainer Ginny DePasquale accounts Tapwrit’s improvement to the colt maturing both mentally and physically. “I think he’s just maturing a lot where a lot of the Tapit’s can take a bit more time. He’s settled right in here, and he’s coming around in the right way,” she explained.
Practical Joke won the Hopeful Stakes (GI) and the Champagne Stakes (GI) last year at two for owners Klaravich Stables Inc. and William H. Lawrence and trainer Chad Brown. He closed out 2016 with a distant third to Classic Empire and Not This Time in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI) and in his seasonal debut, the son of Into Mischief was second to Gunnevera in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (GII) after making a bold move to the lead at the top of the stretch. Brown is concerned about the 1 ⅛ miles for the colt but attributes his Fountain of Youth finish to needing a race after not having raced in four months.
Rounding out the graded stakes winners in the field is Albaugh Family Stables’ grade 3 winner J Boys Echo, trained by Dale Romans. Romans and Albaugh teamed up last year in this race with Brody’s Cause, who made a sweeping move in the stretch and pulled away to victory. A son of Mineshaft, J Boys Echo was a $485,000 yearling purchase and always has been held in very high regard by his connections. A troubled second in his debut, he encountered equally as much — if not more — trouble in his second start, but talent pulled him through and he galloped away to win by 5 ½ lengths. He then moved into graded stakes company with a troubled fourth in the Delta Downs Jackpot (GIII) and a third in the Withers Stakes (GIII). In his most recent outing, J Boys Echo took the Gotham Stakes (GIII) by 3 ½ lengths.
Completing the field are stakes winner It’s Your Nickel, and the multiple graded stakes-placed pair of Wild Shot and Irap, the latter is still a maiden.
Carded as the 10th race on the program, approximate post time for the $1 million Toyota Blue Grass is 6:17 pm ET.
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