Trainer Ian Wilkes keeps saying he hasn’t gotten a read yet on just how good Janis Whitham’s homebred McCraken is. What is certain in the aftermath of the colt’s 1 1/2-length win Saturday in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes is the son of Ghostzapper is as formidable a force as there is currently on the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands trail.
The build up to McCraken’s seasonal bow concluded with results to match. Under urging from jockey Brian Hernandez Jr.., the unbeaten colt unleashed a wicked turn of foot down the middle of the track and held off a mild bid from Tapwrit late to win the $250,000 Sam F. Davis is a track-record time of 1:42.45 going 1 1/16 miles at Tampa Bay Downs.
In addition to remaining unblemished in four career starts, McCraken took that all-important step forward in his transition from precocious juvenile to leading contender on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.
Wilkes said this week the Sam F. Davis was a steppingstone, and should be viewed as such. Fully cranked or not, McCraken looked every bit the impressive contender as he saved ground early on while State of Honor took the field through quarter-mile fractions of :23.63 and :47.15 before swinging out with about a quarter-mile to go and using his trademark kick to stamp himself as the pro-tem leader in the divisional ranks.
“If he’s good enough, he’ll take us there,” Wilkes said. “I don’t know how good [he is]. But there have been some nice horses that have run a mile and a sixteenth here.
“We’ve got a long way to go. This is not a one-race program. I want two more races for him, than the Derby. This is just one steppingstone, and we keep building.”
The Sam F. Davis marked the first start for McCraken outside of Churchill Downs, and the tricky Florida surface has been undoing of many a notable runner in years past.
Just as he did in his career debut last Oct. 2, in the Street Sense Stakes 28 days later and again during his 1 ¼-length score in the Nov. 26 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, McCraken methodically bided his time before swallowing up his foes with a stride that has yet to reach its bottom.
When Hernandez moved him out after tracking along in sixth and asked from more around the final turn, it was as if the Louisiana native hit a switch and turned on a set of afterburners.
Despite some slight bearing out in the lane, McCraken continued on comfortably to the finish line on a fast track, suggesting there is more ability to be unearthed.
“He puts a lot of confidence in you, that’s for sure,” Hernandez said. “You’ve just got to go with it and ride him with confidence. I asked him at about the half-mile pole and he hesitated a bit, but I think that was his way of telling me ‘Don’t worry. We’re going to get the job done.’ ”
Tapwrit rallied for second over pacesetter State of Honor with Wild Shot finishing fourth. Fact Finding, No Dozing, Six Gun Salute, Chance of Luck, and King and His Court completed the order of finish.
Sent off at 3-2 odds, McCraken paid $5, $3.60 and $2.80 across the board and now has 20 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard.
Out of the Seeking the Gold mare Ivory Empress, McCraken improved his earnings to $310,848. With seemingly room to improve his form as well, even the understated Wilkes couldn’t help but concede the spotlight is rightfully going to be on his barn in the weeks ahead.
“Let’s pay all credit to the horse,” Wilkes said. “He’s taking us there. Let’s pay attention to him.”