September 29, 2022

McCraken keeps rolling in final Blue Grass move

McCraken breezed a half-mile in :49.40 for the Blue Grass (Keeneland/Coady Photography)

At Keeneland on Sunday, unbeaten Kentucky Derby (G1) contender McCraken turned in his final work for Saturday’s Blue Grass S. (G2).

Under jockey Brian Hernandez Jr., who just arrived after an overnight drive from New Orleans, the Ian Wilkes trainee negotiated a half-mile in :49.40.

“I thought the work was very good,” Wilkes told Keeneland publicity. “It was a nice half, and he galloped out strong another quarter and I was pleased with how he did it.”

Indeed, the early fractions, and his gallop-out time, present a portrait of sustained cruising speed.

McCraken was caught going in :12.60, :25, and :37 for the first three furlongs, and the Ghostzapper colt kept his momentum through a gallop-out of five furlongs in 1:01.20 and six furlongs in 1:13.80.

“He does everything right on cue now,” Hernandez said. “He goes around in perfect 12s (referring to his time in seconds per furlong) and gets faster as he goes. He’s an amazing horse.

“Last year he worked five-eighths before the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) and just went out there, but now he is focused on the job like he wants to do it. I don’t have to force him to do anything.”

Hernandez is in line for a tough Derby decision. He’s also the regular rider of Girvin, whom he just guided to victory in Saturday’s Louisiana Derby (G2) at Fair Grounds before making the trek to Lexington to work McCraken.

“It was worth it,” Hernandez smiled regarding the 10-hour road trip. “Every rider’s dream is to be in the spot I’m in.

“I’m good friends with both (connections). I’m happy for (Girvin’s trainer) Joe (Sharp), (his wife) Rosie and (owner) Brad (Grady) to win the Louisiana Derby with Girvin and then I get to come here to work a horse like McCraken.”

McCraken opened his sophomore campaign with a track record-setting performance in the February 11 Sam F. Davis (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs. That was supposed to be his stepping stone to the Tampa Bay Derby (G2), but the Whitham Thoroughbreds homebred came down with a left front ankle strain, and Wilkes gave him time to get over the apparently minor setback.

“He is feeling good and his attitude is great. He is enjoying it here,” Wilkes said. “He has gotten bigger and stronger since he has been here and maybe missing that race was a blessing. Things happen for a reason and we will find out in the long run.”

Also breezing Sunday for the Blue Grass was John Battaglia Memorial romper It’s Your Nickel, who covered five-eighths in 1:01.60 for Ken McPeek.

Keeneland reported that the son of Dialed In, with Jack Gilligan up, posted splits of :13.20, :25.40, :37.60, and :50.40 before galloping out six furlongs in 1:14.60.

“We were just looking for a nice maintenance work, something to keep his feet on the ground for the rest of the week,” assistant trainer Alan Shell said. “He finished up well, so we’ll just keep an eye on him this week and should be good to go. He looks like he’s handling the track well.”

Florida shipper Tapwrit, runner-up to McCraken in the Davis prior to a stakes-record Tampa Bay Derby win, was scheduled to arrive at Keeneland Sunday afternoon. The $1.2 million Tapit colt sped a half-mile Friday at trainer Todd Pletcher’s Palm Beach Downs base in :48.75.

The Chad Brown-trained Practical Joke polished off his preparations at Palm Meadows Saturday, touring five furlongs in 1:00.45. The Hopeful (G1) and Champagne (G1) winner, most recently third in the Fountain of Youth (G2), was also due Sunday afternoon in Lexington.

Gotham (G3) winner J Boys Echo went five-eighths in 1:00.69 at Gulfstream Saturday. Wild Shot and California shipper Irap, already on the premises at Keeneland, round out the projected field of seven for the Blue Grass, which offers Derby points on a 100-40-20-10 scale to the top four finishers.