It is coming together in classic fashion, like few other sports could produce: a widow in her 80s from Leoti, Kansas (population 1,500) has the “now” horse for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands.
Janis Whitham’s experience in racing is a classic. She has cultivated a small band of homebreds over many years and enjoyed success through the generations, both people and horses. Last Saturday, Whitham was joined by a large group of friends and family in the winner’s circle after the $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. Her son Stewart led the horse in. Another son, Clay, helps her manage the stable. They shared the joy of watching her colt McCraken take another step toward the Derby with an umblemished record.
This is uncharted territory for Whitham, after more than 40 years in racing. She and her late husband reached a pinnacle in the sport more than 25 years ago when they raced the two-time champion and 1989-'90 Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Bayakoa. Frank Whitham died in 1993, but his wife has admirably carried on and kept breeding winners. In 2012, it was a great-grandson of Bayakoa who brought her another round of Breeders’ Cup glory, as Fort Larned prevailed in the richest race in America at the time, the $5-million Classic. Whitham, with son Clay by her side in managing nine broodmares and about 10 horses in training, has been responsible for a steady stream of classy horses.
The Kentucky Derby, though, is a different animal altogether. People who breed nine or 10 horses a year, eschewing fashionable pedigrees in favor of the kind of stock that they like and desire to race, do not do it with the expectation that they will churn out a Derby horse. They may dream, and a dream is one of racing’s most powerful elements. But Mrs. Whitham has mostly just kept plugging away and now finds herself with a chance to reach the run for the roses for the first time, and with an exciting candidate to boot.
She has never even attended the Derby.
“It is all very exciting for everyone, her in particular, but she has been in racing so long that you don’t take anything for granted,” Clay Whitham said. “The attention that comes with a horse like this is nice, but it can be stressful. We have a long way to go.”
McCraken’s trainer, Ian Wilkes, also has never run a horse in the Derby, at least in his own name, but he sure knows the way there.
Wilkes led Derby heroes Unbridled and Street Sense over to the Churchill Downs paddock for their starring roles on the first Saturday in May, representing Hall of Fame trainer Carl Nafzger.
With Unbridled in 1990, Wilkes was an exercise rider. He eventually became Nafzger’s key assistant. By the time Street Sense emerged, Nafzger had turned almost his entire roster over to Wilkes, save for about a dozen horses that he retained for two clients, one of whom was the owner and breeder of Street Sense. Wilkes kept pitching in for Nafzger, and vice versa, in a remarkably smooth transition. Not one of Nafzger’s owners moved their horses elsewhere, and that included Janis Whitham.
Ten years later, Wilkes and Whitham are going strong together, and not just with McCraken. They won a Grade 2 race with another homebred, a filly named Linda, at Churchill Downs last fall, and McCraken’s half-brother Bondurant finished second in a Grade 3 race.
“I can’t say enough about the Whithams,” Wilkes said “They have been in the game so long and I can’t be thankful enough for the owners like them, who were with Carl and gave me a chance, and now it is 10 or 11 years later and I have had a few generations of their horses.”
McCraken was named after the town “McCracken,” in Kansas that somewhere along the line lost a "c" in the process of registering his name. He dashed to an easy win in his debut last September at Churchill and has followed with three straight stakes scores.
“I can’t say that we could tell right away what we had,” Wilkes said. “You just never know. His works from the gate before his first race were very good, and that is when we could see he had talent.
“He is a straightforward, good-feeling horse. We want the horse to take us there, we don’t want to force anything, so we will see how the next couple months go. One thing I learned along the way with Carl and being around Unbridled and Street Sense, you just want to enjoy it and not get ahead of the game. These horses don’t come along everyday, so you’ve got to enjoy them.”