Trainer Ian Wilkes keeps saying he hasn't gotten a read yet on just how good Janis Whitham's homebred McCraken is. What's certain in the aftermath of the colt's 1 1/2-length win Feb. 11 Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) is this—the son of Ghostzapper is as formidable a force as there is in the current sophomore male ranks.
The build-up to McCraken's seasonal bow concluded with results to match. Under some left-handed urging from jockey Brian Hernandez Jr., the unbeaten colt unleashed a wicked turn of foot down the middle of the track and held off a mild bid from Tapwrit late to win the $250,000 Sam F. Davis in a track-record time of 1:42.45 going 1 1/16 miles at Tampa Bay Downs.
In addition to remaining unblemished in four career starts, McCraken took that all-important step forward in his transition from precocious juvenile to leading contender on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.
Wilkes said this week the Sam F. Davis was a stepping stone, and should be viewed as such. Fully cranked or not, McCraken looked every bit the impressive contender as he saved ground early on while State of Honor took the field through fractions of :23.63 and :47.15. Swinging out with about a quarter mile to go, the bay colt used his trademark kick to stamp himself as the pro-tem leader in the divisional ranks.
"If he’s good enough, he’ll take us there,” Wilkes said. "I don’t know how good (he is). But there have been some nice horses that have run a mile-and-a-sixteenth here.
"We’ve got a long way to go. This is not a one-race program. I want two more races for him, then the Derby. This is just one stepping stone, and we keep building."
The Sam F. Davis marked the first start for McCraken outside of Churchill Downs, and the tricky Florida surface has been the undoing of many a notable runner in years past.
Just as he did in his career debut last Oct. 2, in the Street Sense Stakes 28 days later, and again during his 1 1/4 length score in the Nov. 26 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2), McCraken methodically bided his time before swallowing up his foes with a stride that has yet to reach its bottom.
When Hernandez moved him out after tracking along in sixth and asked from more around the final turn, it was as if the Louisiana native hit a switch and turned on a set of afterburners. Despite some slight bearing out in the lane, McCraken continued on comfortably to the wire over a fast track, suggesting there is more ability to be unearthed.
"He puts a lot of confidence in you, that’s for sure," Hernandez said. “You’ve just got to go with it and ride him with confidence. I asked him at about the half-mile pole and he hesitated a bit, but I think that was his way of telling me ‘Don’t worry. We’re going to get the job done.'"
Tapwrit got up for second over pacesetter State of Honor, with Wild Shot finishing fourth. Fact Finding, No Dozing, Six Gun Salute, Chance of Luck, and King and His Court completed the order of finish.
McCraken paid $5, $3.60 and $2.80 across the board at odds of 3-2, and now has 20 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard.
Out of the Seeking the Gold mare Ivory Empress, McCraken improved his earnings improved to $310,848. With seemingly room to improve his form as well, even the understated Wilkes couldn't help but concede the spotlight is rightfully going to be on his barn in the weeks ahead.
"Let’s pay all credit to the horse,” Wilkes said. “He’s taking us there. Let’s pay attention to him.”