Making the Grade, which will run through the 2017 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners or top performers of the big races, usually from the previous weekend, who could impact the next Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey) and pedigree.
In three races to date, McCraken has yet to be seriously challenged while being asked to take a significant step up in class each time. He’s posted three clear victories in as many races, all at Churchill Downs, and his win in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes as the 4-5 favorite confirmed his status as a legitimate contender on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.
Ability: McCraken turned some heads when winning his debut by 2 ½ lengths on Oct. 2 at Churchill, but it was in his next race when stretching out from a sprint to the one-mile Street Sense Stakes when the bay Ghostzapper colt really generated significant buzz. McCraken swept into contention on the turn of the Street Sense Stakes and seized command with an explosive rally. He pulled away impressively in the stretch to win by 3 ¾ lengths, earning a career-best 100 Equibase Speed Figure.
Trainer Ian Wilkes then entered McCraken in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes next, asking his charge to handle a test in class and navigate two turns for the first time. Again, he made his winning bid on the final turn with a sweeping rally and pulled clear in the stretch to win by 1 ¼ lengths. He’s a strong finisher who took a little longer to change leads in the stretch of the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes than he did in the Street Sense, but once he did, McCraken accelerated powerfully.
The 91 Equibase Speed Figure he earned for winning his graded stakes debut represented a step back, but McCraken had a much brisker pace to close into in the Street Sense. Visually, the Kentucky Jockey Club was an impressive victory for his first try around two turns. As he matures and figures everything out, McCraken should continue to improve.
Running style: McCraken has closed from off the pace in each of his three races, preferring to settle into a comfortable rhythm early and launch his rally on the final turn. Such tactics can be effective on the Triple Crown trail as well as in the Kentucky Derby, although navigating a path from the back of the field to the front in a field of 20 on Derby day is a daunting task that requires some racing luck. McCraken does possess enough early speed to help gain early positioning, which he flashed out of the starting gate in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, or to make a strong middle move into contention. That could prove a valuable asset on the path to Louisville and on Derby day.
Connections: McCraken’s owner-breeder, Janis Whitham, teamed with McCraken’s trainer, Ian Wilkes, and jockey, Brian Joseph Hernandez Jr., to win the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic with Fort Larned.
Whitham also bred and raced Grade 1 winners Affluent and Mea Domina, the latter a half-sister to McCraken’s dam, Ivory Empress. Whitham and her husband, Frank, who died in a plane crash in 1993, won both the 1989 and 1990 Breeders’ Cup Distaff with two-time champion Bayakoa, a 12-time Grade 1 winner.
Wilkes grew up on a farm in Austrailia and came to the U.S. in 1989 to work for trainer Carl Nafzger, a future Hall of Famer for whom Wilkes would gallop 1990 Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Unbridled. He later served as Nafzger’s top assistant and took over the bulk of his stable when Nafzger began to look toward retirement in 2006. In addition to Fort Larned, Wilkes also trained multiple graded stakes winners Capt. Candyman Can, Miss Isella and Neck ’n Neck. He has never had a starter in the Kentucky Derby.
Brian Joseph Hernandez Jr. has been aboard for all three of McCraken’s victories. Hernandez won the 2004 Eclipse Award as outstanding apprentice jockey and has amassed 1,601 victories through Nov. 28. The Louisiana native picked up his first Kentucky Derby mount in 2016 when he guided Louisiana Derby runner-up Tom’s Ready to an unplaced finish. Hernandez, 31, is the son of former rider Brian Hernandez Sr. and his younger brother Colby also is a professional jockey.
Whitham Thoroughbreds, Wilkes and Hernandez combined to win the Grade 2 Mrs. Revere Stakes with 3-year-old filly Linda on Nov. 25.
Pedigree: McCraken is from the eighth crop of the brilliantly fast 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper, who set a 1 ¼-mile track record when winning the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Classic in 1:59.02 at Lone Star Park. Ghostzapper was a Grade 1 winner at 6 ½ furlongs, one mile, 1 1/8 miles and 1 ¼ miles.
As a sire, Ghostzapper has 346 winners from 463 starters that have earned more than $49 million through Nov. 28. His 62 stakes winners include champion female sprinter Judy the Beauty and Grade 1 winners Shaman Ghost, Moreno, Better Lucky, Stately Victor, Molly Morgan, Contested and Starship Truffles. Shaman Ghost and Moreno serve as recent examples of Ghostzapper passing along both speed and stamina to elite runners.
McCraken’s dam, Ivory Empress, by Seeking the Gold, was at her best in sprints. She never won a race longer than 6 ½ furlongs and was Grade 3-placed at six furlongs. In addition to McCraken, Ivory Empress also produced Bondurant, the runner-up in this year’s Grade 3 Commonwealth Turf Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on the grass.
McCraken’s grandam (maternal grandmother), Madame Pandit, was a multiple stakes winner sprinting, including a win in the Grade 3 Monrovia Handicap in 1998. Madame Pandit’s best runner, the aforementioned Mea Domina, was a Grade 1 winner at 1 1/8 miles on the turf.
McCraken already owns three wins on the racetrack that hosts the Kentucky Derby, he’s in capable hands and boasts elite ability. Combine those qualifications with enough pedigree to dream on and you’ve got an exciting prospect for the 2017 Triple Crown races.