Janis Whitham and her son, Clay, have unleashed the Mc“Craken” on the Kentucky Derby Presented By Yum! Brands (G1) trail. On February 11, their undefeated homebred McCraken registered an impressive victory in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs. In the process, the favored McCraken (Ghostzapper—Ivory Empress, by Seeking the Gold) set a new track record, covering the 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.45.
Another point in McCraken’s favor is his affinity for Churchill Downs, home base of his trainer, Ian Wilkes. He won his first three starts over that surface, including two stakes last fall as a two-year-old—the listed Street Sense and the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2). “It’s been quite a ride so far,” said Clay Whitham enthusiastically. He added, “He’s been a big surprise to us, obviously a pleasant surprise.” His pedigree is also Derby-ready. 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper , carried his speed over 1 1/4 miles, while Seeking the Gold got good runners over middle and classic distances, imparting stamina to progeny like 2006 Belmont (G1) winner Jazil.
Until now, the Whithams’ best runners have primarily been older horses, but 2016 marked a change. In addition to McCraken, they own Linda, a four-year-old filly who captured the Mrs. Revere (G2) at Churchill Downs last year. But Whitham family triumphs have come across the country, including Grade 1 victories on both coasts from two-time Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) winner, multiple champion, and Hall of Famer Bayakoa. “1989 was when Bayakoa won her first Breeders’ Cup Distaff in Florida,” Whitham recalled. “That was a lot of fun. It was just unbelievable. She was just a winning machine, just winning grade I's.”
The famously parrot-mouthed mare didn’t reproduce herself as a broodmare, but her daughters more than made up for that. In the early 2000s, her granddaughter Affluent, an Affirmed mare out of Bayakoa’s daughter Trinity Place, captured four grade I races for the Whithams. A decade later, Whitham homebred Fort Larned (a son of Bayakoa’s daughter Arlucea) won the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) and Whitney Handicap (G1), as well as the 2013 Stephen Foster Handicap (G1). The Whithams’ hometown of Leoti, Kansas, even celebrated “Fort Larned Day” in 2012.
Mother and son frequently collaborate on the operation. “It makes it that much more rewarding,” Whitham said. “It is a family activity for us, and my parents were involved in owning horses their whole lives.” One pivotal purchase came at the 1983 Keeneland November mixed sale, when Frank Whitham brought home a weanling Nodouble filly for $75,000. He would name her Tuesday Evening, and she became the eventual third dam of McCraken. “This family and that mare really played an essential part in our horse ownership program,” Whitham said.
Tuesday Evening excelled in the breeding shed, producing three stakes winners, including Sunlit Silence (dam of 2004 grade 2 Oak Tree Derby winner Greek Sun); graded stakes-winning turf sprinter Fiscally Speaking; and speedy grade 3 victress Madame Pandit. Whitham noted that Madame Pandit, a daughter of Wild Again, “was very scopey. She was big, but she had a lot of talent, and was fast,” adding that “she produced just gorgeous foals.” Granddam of Panamanian champion Pancha Mancha, Madame Pandit foaled grade 1-winning turf star Mea Domina and grade 3-placed Ivory Empress. The last-named, dam of McCraken, came along late in Madame Pandit’s career, a long-awaited filly for the Whithams to add to their broodmare band. “To get a filly out of Madame, and have her turn into the kind of broodmare that she is, is a just a plan really coming together well,” Whitham said.
Ivory Empress also produced Bondurant (by War Front), a now-four-year-old colt who earned a grade 3 turf placing last year. The Seeking the Gold mare currently is in foal to Majesticperfection and is booked to Into Mischief ; both stallions, sons of Harlan’s Holiday, represent Whitham’s favored cross: Northern Dancer on Mr. Prospector. The Whithams currently own about ten broodmares, boarded in Kentucky and eleven racehorses.
Avid promoters of organizations to improve the game—“we are supporters of TOBA and try to support anything we can in the industry”—Whitham is excited about what 2017 will bring. Hopefully, the whole family will be at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, as he observed, “It’s a lot of fun to share the excitement of going and enjoying races with those people that are interested in that.”