In his first workout since arriving at the Spa following a gut-punch of a defeat on the Jersey Shore, Janis Whitham's homebred acted like a horse making himself at home in his new surroundings.
Typically a solid work performer, McCraken turned in one of his snappier breezes Aug. 10, covering four furlongs in :49.03 over the Oklahoma Training Track, the fastest of 31 drills at the distance Thursday.
The energy the bay colt showed both during and after his morning outing was enough to keep trainer Ian Wilkes' attitude bright as he readies his charge for an expected start in the Aug. 26 Travers Stakes (G1).
In his most recent outing, McCraken ran one of the best and most taxing races of his eight-race career, but was caught late and beaten a nose by Girvin in the July 30 betfair.com Haskell Invitational Stakes (G1) at Monmouth Park.
"He did it very easy today. It was just a nice comfortable half, and he was well within himself," Wilkes said. "I took him over to Oklahoma (training track) and he got over the ground very well. He's happy, and he was screaming and hollering for his food afterwards. So yeah—very pleased with how he's doing."
Even in defeat, Wilkes feels McCraken's Haskell effort validated his belief that the colt is one of the more talented members of this year's parity-filled sophomore class. His eighth-place run in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) is the only time the colt has finished worse than third in a career that has seen him record victories in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2), Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3), and Matt Winn Stakes (G3).
"The horse ran great (in the Haskell)," Wilkes said. "I kept saying that I've always believed he's one of the best 3-year-olds, but that it's up to him to do the talking, not me. And I felt he did the talking. He was just two inches away, the wrong way.
"The good thing is, my horse is still learning. He's still getting it together and I think you haven't seen the best of him yet. I still think he's getting better."
The 1 1/4-mile Travers is setting up as the latest chance to get a definitive leader from a group of 3-year-old males that have spent the year trading blows. In addition to McCraken and Girvin, Jim Dandy Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G2) winner Good Samaritan is slated to return in the 10-furlong summer classic, as is Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1) victor Tapwrit and multiple graded winner Irap, who is riding back-to-back victories in the Ohio Derby (G3) and Indiana Derby (G3).
"There are a lot of scenarios that you can make the case for in a lot of different ways," Wilkes said of the 3-year-old division. "It is wide open. We've all beaten each other and, as far as how good this crop is, we won't know until we face the older horses. That's going to tell us where this crop is."