Janis Whitham's undefeated multiple graded stakes winner McCraken had his first work March 20 since being relocated to Keeneland to prepare for a start in the $1 million Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2) April 8.
The 3-year-old son of Ghostzapper —Ivory Empress, by Seeking the Gold, worked after the renovation break, effortlessly gliding five furlongs in 1:00 and galloping out strong. The splits were :12 3/5, :26 1/5, :37 1/5, and :48 1/5. Regular rider Brian Hernandez Jr. flew in for the work, which earned the bullet among seven at the distance.
"I'm going to run here so I decided to come up a little earlier and give him a few works over the track," said trainer Ian Wilkes, who previously had McCraken stabled at Palm Meadows in South Florida. "You want everything to go right. I didn't want to have to ship on top of the race where something could go wrong. We'll give him time to get acclimated. There is a little cooler weather, and the horses love it."
Having won the Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) Feb. 11 at Tampa Bay Downs and last year's Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) at Churchill Downs, McCraken already has earned 20 points through the Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifying series. He ranks 12th on the leaderboard as of March 18, sharing the same number of points as Iliad, Sonneteer, and Cloud Computing but placed ahead of these because he has more earnings in non-restricted stakes.
McCraken had been heading toward a showdown with Tapwrit in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby (G2) but bypassed the race because of a strained ankle from which he has fully recovered, according to Wilkes.
"I couldn't stress this enough before, it was just a minor thing," Wilkes said about the strain. "I could have run him but I might have not liked the result. The horse has taken care of me, why would I not take care of him? If I didn't get the Sam Davis race, then I would have been in trouble. But I got a good race in him, and everything is where I want to be. I needed to let that ankle quiet down and go on."
When Hernandez settled into the saddle before the March 20 work, he said it felt as though the colt had grown since his last race. Wilkes said he told Hernandez that missing the Tampa Bay Derby may have been a hidden blessing.
"The colt has filled out more and he's stronger," Wilkes said. "Things happen for a reason. You may not like it, you may not want it, but I think just in that short time he has really changed on me. He's a different horse."
In other news out of the Wilkes' barn, McCraken's year-older half brother, Bondurant, also worked, covering a half-mile in :48. Wilkes is aiming the son of War Front , second in Gulfstream Park's Canadian Turf Stakes (G3T) March 4, at the $300,000 Maker's 46 Mile Stakes (G1T) to be run April 14 at Keeneland.
Another Wilkes runner at Keeneland is Lothenbach Stables' stakes winner Sonic Boom, who is to run in the Transylvania Stakes Presented by Keeneland Select (G3T) April 7, opening day of the spring meet.