McCraken picked up where he left off last fall, comfortably winning the February 11 Sam F. Davis (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs. The unbeaten colt isn’t flashy, scoring by less than two lengths in the Sam Davis and Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) in late November, but he’s established himself as a leading figure in the Kentucky Derby picture.
What impresses me is his ability to corner. McCraken gains steam rounding the far turn and carries momentum into the straightaway, placing himself in a prime position by the top of the stretch before grinding out the win. That’s how he’s captured all four career starts.
The Ian Wilkes trainee appeared to be languishing in seventh nearing the conclusion of the backstretch in the Davis, receiving a reminder from jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. before beginning to advance along the rail on the far turn. McCraken rallied into traffic but continued to accelerate while altering course about four or five paths wide toward the conclusion of the bend.
In his juvenile finale, McCraken caught a speed-favoring track in the Kentucky Jockey Club and left himself plenty to do leaving the backstretch in ninth. But he sealed the deal with a terrific turn of foot at Churchill Downs, rallying wide past seven rivals on the far turn to put himself in position to win.
As the saying goes, the Kentucky Derby is won on the far turn. And that benefits McCraken, who is 3-for-3 at Churchill Downs.
His BRIS Speed ratings still need improvement but McCraken is moving on up, posting a career-best 99 in the Davis. And further progression is easy to envision from the rising sophomore. He received a commendable 103 BRIS Late Pace number as well.
McCraken runs from off the pace but I wouldn’t classify him as a dedicated deep closer. He never lost contact with the field in the Sam Davis, racing about five lengths back during the early stages, and has registered E1 Pace ratings in the 80s and E2 Pace ratings in the 90s.
Owned and bred by Janis Whitham, the bay colt is by Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Ghostzapper and appears built for longer distances. He’s out of a mare by Seeking the Gold, who is also known as the broodmare sire of Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Blame.
McCraken will look to keep moving forward in his next two preps, most likely the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) on March 11 and Blue Grass (G2) at Keeneland on April 8.
Tapwrit joined the Road to the Kentucky Derby series with a fine second in the Sam Davis. A maiden winner two starts previously, the $1.2 million yearling was exiting a victory in the off-the-turf Pulpit at Gulfstream on December 10 and has stamped himself as an up-and-comer for Todd Pletcher. The Tapit colt could find nine furlongs suitable but the presence of damsire Successful Appeal dampens his prospects for Triple Crown distances.
Pacesetter State of Honor finished another length back in third. The Woodbine maiden winner turned in an improved effort with the addition of blinkers and earned another opportunity in a qualifier, but the Ontario-bred figures to head north for his ultimate engagement, the Queen’s Plate in early July, after Woodbine opens this spring.
Kentucky Jockey Club runner-up Wild Shot, second choice Fact Finding and Remsen (G2) runner-up No Dozing came next under the wire and will need to find form in upcoming engagements to remain viable Kentucky Derby prospects.
Others of interest
After dropping his first start against the well-regarded American Anthem, Iliad has turned heads with a pair of spectacular wins in Southern California including a 3 ½-length tally in the February 12 San Vicente (G2). The Ghostzapper colt registered a 97 BRIS Speed rating winning the 7-furlong test in front-running fashion and is expected to make his two-turn bow in the San Felipe (G2) on March 11. The Doug O’Neill-trained colt is certainly bred for longer distances, with half-brother Melmich winning graded stakes up to 1 ¾ miles, and Iliad rates as an exciting prospect, indeed.
Malagacy has left a fine impression winning both career starts at Gulfstream, registering a 104 BRIS Speed rating for his debut score in early January and a 103 for a 7-length romp over entry-level allowance foes on February 12. The son of Shackleford has established himself as a promising talent for Todd Pletcher but may remain in one-turn events.
Third Day will get the chance to stretch out for Pletcher after capturing an overnight stakes, the Just One More at Gulfstream, over a one-turn mile on February 8. By Bernardini, the dark bay colt opened his career with a maiden tally at Monmouth Park in late July and is now 2-for-2. He registered a 93 BRIS Speed rating rallying from just off the pace to a neck decision.
Pletcher was represented by convincing maiden scorer Egyptian Hero on the Sam Davis undercard. Fourth when making his debut in mid-December, the $1 million Pioneerof the Nile colt broke his maiden in good order, dominating from the start, but the dark bay colt’s 85 Speed rating was disappointing.
En Hanse showed speed from the start and drew away to a 3 ½-length tally in the February 11 WEBN at Turfway Park, rebounding from a disappointing seventh in the January 29 Space City at Sam Houston. The Mike Maker-trained colt didn’t fare well in his lone two-turn start and appears likely to stick to sprinting.
After recording a pair of runner-up finishes, Aristocratic broke his maiden by 1 ¼ lengths at Santa Anita on February 11. A $475,000 yearling purchase, the Malibu Moon colt netted a 90 BRIS Speed rating in his third career outing and is trained by O’Neill.
A pair of qualifying races are on deck, Saturday’s El Camino Real Derby (G3) at Golden Gate Fields and Monday’s Southwest (G3) at Oaklawn Park.
Only seven were entered for the 1 1/8-mile El Camino Real Derby on Tapeta and Sheer Flattery is the one to beat following a third in the Robert B. Lewis (G3). California Cup Derby winner Ann Arbor Eddie rates as the main rival.
The top two from the January 16 Smarty Jones at Oaklawn, Uncontested and Petrov, will be return for the 1 1/16-mile Southwest and Lookin at Lee is scheduled to make his first appearance since finishing fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) at Santa Anita.
Kentucky Derby Top 20
- MCCRAKEN: Returned in fine fettle winning Sam Davis; late runner loves Churchill Downs
- IRISH WAR CRY: Impressively led wire-to-wire in Holy Bull, expect him to show more versatility in March 4 Fountain of Youth
- EL AREEB: Laurel-based colt has yet to face top company but looks poised to be a serious player at highest level
- CLASSIC EMPIRE: Foot abscess blamed for disappointing third in Holy Bull; will get chance to make amends in Fountain of Youth
- AMERICAN ANTHEM: Ran fast making second start in Sham, could be any kind for Baffert
- MASTERY: Unbeaten Grade 1 winner readying for 2017, Baffert plans to keep him separated from American Anthem in upcoming preps
- MO TOWN: Last seen winning Remsen, Uncle Mo colt is expected back in Feb 25 Risen Star
- GORMLEY: Rebounded from disappointing BC Juv effort with game Sham win
- ILIAD: Impressive San Vicente winner eligible to transfer form to 2-turns
- GUNNEVERA: Holy Bull runner-up packs a late punch
- PRACTICAL JOKE: Multiple G1 winner & BC Juv third-placer gearing up for first of 2 preps
- BATTALION RUNNER: Like him a lot but flabbergasted to learn he could wait 2 months for Fla Derby, with only 1 start in 90-period before May 6; sitting on the sidelines can’t be the optimal way to prepare inexperienced 3yos for 1 ¼ miles on dirt in a 20-horse field
- DABSTER: Curlin colt returned to worktab this week, exits a pair of key races for Baffert
- TAPWRIT: Sam Davis runner-up moving in the right direction for Pletcher
- UNCONTESTED: Won Smarty Jones as lone speed on wet track, will enhance standing with Southwest victory
- LOOKIN AT LEE: Hard-trying juvenile cashed a lot of checks for minor awards, will try to up his game at age 3
- ROYAL MO: Defeated a suspect group of rivals taking Robert Lewis wire to wire
- GUEST SUITE: Earned first stakes win in Lecomte
- ALWAYS DREAMING: Tampa Bay Derby will be litmus test for eye-catching maiden winner
- REACH THE WORLD: Up against it as unraced juvenile but liked recent maiden tally for Baffert