When Janis Whitham's homebred McCraken suffered his first loss in the April 8 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2), trainer Ian Wilkes maintained the on-track setback would ultimately move the colt forward in terms of fitness.
Wilkes stood by that assessment even more April 18 after watching the son of Ghostzapper turn in a solid four-furlong breeze, his first move since crossing the wire third in his final prep for the first leg of the Triple Crown.
Back at his home track, Churchill Downs, McCraken showed composure before and during his half-mile drill in :47 4/5. After heading out around 6:30 a.m. ET with jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. up, the duo had their work delayed by several minutes when the track had to close after another horse broke down.
The Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) winner wasn't rattled by having to make a trip back to Wilkes' barn and then return to the track, and was well settled as he and Hernandez finally broke off for the move. After clocking splits of :12 3/5, :24 3/5, and :36 2/5, McCraken galloped out big in 1:00 and 1:13 2/5 while staying glued to the rail.
"He felt great. He was a little more settled going to the pole today than he was over at Keeneland going into his last race," said Hernandez. "He worked great, he came home really, really good. He looks like he's right back home here at Churchill. He always seems to get over Churchill the best out of any (of the tracks). He just has to show that on Derby day."
After taking the Feb. 11 Sam F. Davis in his seasonal bow, McCraken had to miss the March 11 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby (G2) due to a slight ankle strain. With only one start in his charge since his victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) last November, Wilkes said getting some bottom into McCraken was the goal of his Blue Grass run rather than remaining unbeaten. McCraken has won four of his five starts, with $410,848 in earnings.
"The main thing I wanted to see today was see him finish, and finish without riding him to do it," Wilkes said. "I got everything I wanted to see today.
"With the Blue Grass... I was a little out of rhythm of where I wanted to be with him. If I couldn't run in the Blue Grass, I couldn't run in the Derby, so I had to get that race into him. What I wanted to do all winter was let the horse face a little adversity because he had done everything too easily. The thing I liked about it was he didn't quit on me (in the Blue Grass), so I'm looking forward to moving forward with him."
Hernandez had the good problem of having to chose between McCraken and Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby (G2) winner Girvin as his mount for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1). The Louisville resident said the choice "was like deciding between which one of your kids to take on vacation and leaving the other one home," but ultimately stuck with horse who is unbeaten in three starts over the Churchill main track.
"With the Blue Grass under his belt and going into this race, I think we'll be able to get him back in his comfortable routine," Hernandez said. "I think just how smart he is, he'll sit back there behind horses and he kind of helps you read the race. When it's time for him to go, he knows it and he has an incredible turn of foot. He just starts picking up horses when he decides to and when he turns for home, he kicks it on again."