In the days leading up to the Nov. 26 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, trainer Ian Wilkes tried to downplay both his own hot streak and the massive expectations heaped upon his promising charge McCraken.
In the aftermath of the colt’s professional 1 1/4-length triumph over a stubborn Wild Shot and 10 others going 1 1/16 miles at Churchill Downs, Wilkes’ humble nature found it hard to temper the excitement on both accounts.
The build up around McCraken and the recent strength of the Wilkes barn each lived up to their billing in the $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes as Janis Whitham’s homebred used his big turn of foot to edge clear late under Brian Hernandez Jr. and remain unbeaten in three career starts.
McCraken’s first graded stakes score — which also earned him 10 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard — capped off an outstanding week for Wilkes in which he earned his 500th career win on Thanksgiving, one of three victories for his barn that day, and captured the Grade 2 Mrs. Revere Stakes with the improving 3-year-old filly Linda.
Having watched McCraken break his maiden by 2 1/2 lengths in an Oct. 2 maiden special weight race and then wheel back to win the Street Sense Stakes beneath the Twin Spires 28 days later, Wilkes was quietly confident that he had a future force to be reckoned with in 2017.
“He’s as good as what I thought he is,” Wilkes said of McCraken’s win. “He needed that race tonight, he needed a little test. He had to run tonight, they didn’t hand it to him. It wasn’t easy but he came through for us. He had to belly down and run, so that was good.
“It’s just been incredible. I’m very blessed and very honored to have some very nice horses, and they’re running good.”
Carrying the weight of 4-5 favoritism on his shoulders, McCraken broke from post 11 in the field but was able to angle in slightly around the first turn and rate in a clear, outside path in ninth as Uncontested cut an opening quarter-mile in :23.45 and a half-mile in :47.38.
Hernandez let the son of Ghostzapper accelerate past horses and McCraken showed his maturity when he deftly split horses around the turn and began wearing down Wild Shot, who had pressed the pace and briefly took the lead in the stretch under Corey Lanerie before being caught.
“Brian [Hernandez] positioned him well and I was very pleased where he was sitting,” Wilkes said. “His mind and his turn of foot are two of the key things for him. The hype around him all week has just been tremendous. So I just want to enjoy this and then we’ll map out a plan.”
McCraken paid $3.60, $2.40, and $2.40 across the board after crossing the finish line in 1:44.15 on a fast track.
Warrior’s Club, who is owned by the Churchill Downs Racing Club, finished third.
Out of the Seeking the Gold mare Ivory Empress, McCraken improved his career earnings to $190,848.