On Track with Johnny D: McCraken Gets Cracking

Unbeaten, untied and un-scored upon in three starts at two, Thoroughbred racing fans were poised to see how McCraken would perform in his first start at age three. He didn’t disappoint.

The bay colt by Ghostzapper, out of Ivory Empress, bred in Kentucky by owner Whitham Thoroughbreds, first popped the gate back in October at Churchill Downs in a six and one-half furlong maiden race. At just under 3-1 odds, McCraken’s performance elicited the following trip note from yours truly:

Rated rail run. Waited into turn. Moved up inside while in traffic. Angled out and drew clear. Very impressive race. Looked like a seasoned runner. Finished full of run.

Trainer Ian Wilkes was so impressed by the race that for McCraken’s next start less than a month later he entered the colt in the Street Sense–a stakes where contention ran deep. Despite the impressive maiden score, McCraken was dismissed at 8-1 odds in the field of nine. Here are my trip notes:

Broke Ok, mid-pack rail, moved up rail, in the clear, angled out, moved up easily, swung wide, motored past (Guest Suite whipped in second) and drew clear! This is a runner!

Great, now tell us something we didn’t know. Following the Street Sense, the cat was out of the bag on McCraken. About a month later, again at Churchill, McCraken started as 4/5 favorite in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at a mile and one-sixteenth around two turns. Presumably, to make things interesting, racing gods handicapped the colt by forcing him to break from post 11 of 12 runners. Didn’t matter.

Not quick from gate, as usual. Wide first turn from 11 hole. Rated 9th early outside. Moved up under hold. Explosive move on the turn to reach contention. Wide rally into lane. Lug in a bit. Kept grinding. Distance no issue. Ears pricked after wire.

Astute horseplayers know that a lot can happen between Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day–especially to a fragile Thoroughbred entering a 3-year-old season. If you don’t believe me, just ask the connections of Classic Empire, reigning 2-year-old champ. One week before McCraken returned to the races, ‘Empire laid an egg in the Holy Bull Stakes—his 3-year-old debut. Days following the race, an abscess was found in one of the colt’s hooves and that provided a definitive excuse for the disappointing performance.

Trainer Wilkes, former assistant to multiple Kentucky Derby-winning conditioner Carl Nafzger and on the scene when 2-year-old champ Street Sense followed the Tampa Bay Downs route to Louisville glory, aimed McCraken at the Grade 2 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa for the colt’s sophomore coming out party. So far, so good. According to this observer, here’s how McCraken ran in the Sam F. Davis:

Rated early inside, moved up on turn, angled out, roared to leaders, kept going under steady left-handed urging. Another impressive race. This one really can run the turns. Slight tendency to lug in just a bit…hence left hand from Hernandez. Actually may have needed the race. Spotted weight. Stakes and track record time.

In the shadow of Valentine’s Day, we are not about to suggest that McCraken is a cinch to win the 2017 Kentucky Derby. We’re (sometimes) smarter than that. However, at this point, we are willing to argue that McCraken boasts the most complete resume of any 3-year-old in the Triple Crown chase. That he’s unbeaten in three starts over the Churchill Downs racing surface doesn’t hurt, either.

The most impressive 3-year-old performance we’ve seen so far this year came courtesy of the outstanding filly Unique Bella in the Santa Ynez Stakes at Santa Anita. She’s by Tapit and being pointing toward the Kentucky Oaks, according to connections, so we won’t consider her ‘in’ the Triple Crown mix until informed otherwise.

Irish War Cry, unbeaten winner of the Holy Bull Stakes, impressed us, too (as explained in this space last week), and we’re anxious to see him return, perhaps in the Fountain of Youth. Whether or not Classic Empire can rebound from his Holy Bull misfortune in time to be a Triple Crown threat remains to be seen. Normally, any hiccup on the road to Louisville is a deal breaker.

We’ve only seen a few California-based runners perform at three, so there still could be a developing star somewhere in that mix. It should be noted that extremely wet weather in Southern California this winter has compromised training schedules. How much that will adversely affect runners like Mastery, Gormley, Royal Mo, American Anthem, etc. as they prepare for future starts remains to be seem.

Now, through the Belmont Stakes, this horseplayer will examine sophomore runners with an eye toward building winning superfecta tickets. That means runners like Lookin At Lee (not considered a Derby ‘win’ candidate) still will be critical to mutuel success by possibly anchoring the final superfecta position at a big price. As they say on television…Stay Tuned!

Just two weeks remain in Xpressbet’s popular Beat the Host Qualifying Round. Santa Anita VIP concierge, simulcast handicapper and paddock tweeter Tom Quigley is at the plate this week and will be followed by NBC Sports personality Eddie Olczyk next. If you haven’t qualified for the Beat the Host Championship Round on March 4, what are you waiting for? A mere $5 win wager on one horse in each of eight mandatory races is all it takes to play for from $500 to $5,000!

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See you Saturday on Xpressbet for Beat the Host.

Race On!

On Track with Johnny D: McCraken Gets Cracking

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