Trainer Ian Wilkes wants to make it clear that this is the fun part.
The pressure that comes with conditioning a promising 3-year-old runner, one on the cusp of divisional leadership in the court of public opinion, is what drives horsemen to get up at the crack of dawn each day. And while Wilkes knows how quickly things can go sideways during the battle of attrition that is the Road to the Kentucky Derby, he stands by the old trainer-speak mantra that, at this point in the game, he'd be ill-advised to trade positions with anyone.
"Anytime you have a horse that is this sort of prospect with this kind of hype around him, you've just got to enjoy it," Wilkes said. "It's a case of 'Yeah, let's go!'"
It will be go-time for Janis Whitham's unbeaten homebred McCraken once the field for the $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) goes to post Feb. 11 at Tampa Bay Downs. One of the more highly regarded classic prospects for 2017, the Wilkes-trained son of Ghostzapper gets his first chance to make good on his buildup when he makes his seasonal bow against eight others in the 1 1/16-mile test.
With reigning juvenile male champion Classic Empire a well-beaten third in the Feb. 4 Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (G2) last weekend, McCraken could vault to the front of the sophomore ranks if the notoriously tricky Tampa Bay surface—and a tough field that includes Remsen Stakes (G2) runner-up No Dozing—fails to stymie his late kick.
The reasons why the bay colt has earned the respect of many are plentiful. Given that the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) is the end game, it stands out that all of McCraken's three career wins have come at Churchill Downs. His 3 3/4-length triumph in the Street Sense Stakes last October made several take notice, but it was McCraken's rallying, 1 1/4-length win in the Nov. 26 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) that qualified as a 'wow' effort.
The company he has kept has continued to flatter him since, with Guest Suite—third in the Street Sense— returning to take the Lecomte Stakes (G3) in his seasonal bow Jan. 21 at Fair Grounds Race Course and Slots, and Uncontested—fourth in the Kentucky Jockey Club—scoring a 5 1/4-length victory in the Jan. 16 Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park.
"There are those anxious moments as you wait to see them run, but this horse feeds your confidence," Wilkes said. "When you work him, he feeds your confidence. I'm feeling good because he's taken me where I want to go so far. That's the main thing.
"He's right where I want him to be for his first run back. And this is not the end goal. This is not the pot at the end of the rainbow, but it's a start."
Wilkes has repeatedly stated he hasn't gotten to the bottom of McCraken enough to know how good the colt really is. It is a sentiment jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. can vouch for.
"When I worked him last Tuesday (five furlongs in 1:01.10 Jan. 31), he worked with a pretty good older horse and put him away like he wanted to," said Hernandez, who has been aboard McCraken in all three starts. "He did it the right way. That's what I told Ian, he hasn't shown exactly how great he is yet because he's just kind of doing it easily. He looks like he's going to keep getting better, but he has to show it to us."
If McCraken were to stub his toe Saturday, No Dozing could be perfectly situated to earn his first graded stakes win. Lael Stables' homebred son of Union Rags has been training over the Tampa Bay surface since December; his most recent move was a five-furlong breeze in 1:01 1/5 Feb. 4.
No Dozing won his first two starts at Delaware Park and Laurel Park, respectively, and was fourth to eventual champion Classic Empire in the Claiborne Breeders' Futurity (G1) at Keeneland last Oct. 8 prior to his second-place run in the Remsen.
Todd Pletcher-trained Fact Finding is another well-regarded entrant, having ended his juvenile campaign with a seven-length win in the one-mile Smooth Air Stakes at Gulfstream Park Dec. 10. Like McCraken, the son of The Factor is unbeaten in three starts and is making his 3-year-old debut.
Tampa Bay Downs, Saturday, February 11, 2017, Race 10
- 1 1/16m
- 3 yo
- 4:45 PM (local)
|1||1State of Honor (ON)||Julien R. Leparoux||116||Mark E. Casse||8/1|
|2||2King and His Court (ON)||Gary Boulanger||120||Mark E. Casse||8/1|
|3||3Fact Finding (KY)||John R. Velazquez||118||Todd A. Pletcher||9/2|
|4||4Chance of Luck (KY)||Ronald Dale Allen, Jr.||116||Gerald S. Bennett||15/1|
|5||5Six Gun Salute (KY)||Pablo Morales||116||Eoin G. Harty||30/1|
|6||6Wild Shot (KY)||Robby Albarado||116||George R. Arnold, II||5/1|
|7||7Tapwrit (KY)||Jose L. Ortiz||116||Todd A. Pletcher||8/1|
|8||8McCraken (KY)||Brian Joseph Hernandez, Jr.||122||Ian R. Wilkes||2/1|
|9||9No Dozing (KY)||Daniel Centeno||116||Arnaud Delacour||4/1|