Anne M. Eberhardt

Wilkes Retains Confidence After Blue Grass Loss

Said McCraken will benefit from fitness gained in third-place run.

Ian Wilkes joked at his Keeneland barn April 9 that as long as Janis Whitham's homebred McCraken remains unbeaten at Churchill Downs "I'll be OK."

The veteran horseman had his humor intact and his perspective on point Sunday morning less than 24 hours after McCraken finished third in the $1 million Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2) April 8, the colt's first loss in five career starts.

Immediately after the Blue Grass, Wilkes said he wasn't disappointed in the way the son of Ghostzapper  performed in what was his first outing since taking the Feb. 11 Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) in his seasonal bow and just his second start since winning the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) at Churchill last Nov. 26. 

After a slight ankle strain caused McCraken to miss the March 11 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby (G2), Wilkes cautioned that the colt might need the fitness more than the actual victory in the Blue Grass. That the bay runner was still showing signs of fatigue as he went to the track Sunday told Wilkes he indeed got something out of his run behind 31-1 upset victor, Irap.

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"He's a little tired. He's jogged, but he's a little tired. If he wasn't tired today, I'd be in trouble," Wilkes said. "He got something out of it know, (the loss) takes the pressure off trying to stay unbeaten. He made some mistakes, faced some adversity but he kept running. He didn't quit on me.

"My hand was forced to me (missing the Tampa Bay Derby) but now I've got four weeks to have him ready. I don't even know that I would call this a step backwards. It's too much emphasis on winning. You go back and look at past history (of Derby winners), how many won their last race and how many moved forward off a nice race, a good race?"

As a former assistant to Hall of Famer Carl Nafzger—who conditioned 1990 and 2007 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brand (G1) winners Unbridled and Street Sense , respectively—Wilkes has first-hand knowledge of how to bring a leading sophomore into the first Saturday in May off a loss in their final prep. Both Unbridled and Street Sense peaked in the Derby after suffering defeats in the Blue Grass Stakes.

"You look at their races, you at a horse like Thunder Gulch who got beat, you can go through a name a bunch of them," Wilkes said. "It's not all of them that just go on like (2015 Triple Crown winner) American Pharoah . How good was he? I think too much emphasis is put on that, but it gives everyone a talking point."

Wilkes reiterated Sunday that McCraken would ship to Churchill April 10 to prepare for his start in the first leg of the Triple Crown. It will be a welcome homecoming as McCraken is 3-for-3 beneath the Twin Spires, including winning the Street Sense Stakes there last October.

Wilkes added he has not given jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. a time frame yet on when he must make a decision on whether to retain the mount on McCraken or stick with Louisiana Derby (G2) winner Girvin, for whom he is also the regular rider.

"He can't make a decision until he knows how I come out. And you have to be careful not to make it too early because what if something happens to one of them?" Wilkes said. "Why would he give up one horse and then something happens to the other. He doesn't have to make that decision yet."