Success on the racetrack often comes in bunches. That was certainly the case last weekend, as trainer Ian Wilkes won a total of three stakes races at Churchill Downs. Starting on Thursday, Thatcher Street won the Grade 3 River City Handicap. Linda took the G2 Mrs. Revere on Friday, and on Saturday the talented juvenile colt McCraken came from behind to score in the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club.
“It would be nice to have this type of weekend every weekend,” Wilkes said. “We've got some nice horses, which is good.”
McCraken's impressive Jockey Club win put him near the top of the list in the first Kentucky Derby Future Wager pool. This isn't the first time that Wilkes, a 51-year-old Australian native, has been in the spotlight with talented horses.
Growing up on a dairy farm, Wilkes didn't have much contact with anything equine. As a teenager, he and a friend, the son of a racing secretary, traveled to the local racecourse whenever they weren't in school to see the Thoroughbreds in action.
“I loved the racing, loved watching the horses,” Wilkes remembered. “We would go to the track and I'd sell programs for half a day, and get five dollars for it. Then, the second half of the day I'd go and gamble.”
Those afternoons spent on the rail listening to the intoxicating music of Thoroughbred hoofbeats pounding down the stretch left a major impression on Wilkes. He left school early to take a job grooming horses for Paul Sutherland.
“My first day there, I'm leading two horses to the track across a six-lane highway,” he recalled. “That's the way you used to cross to go to the track. It was an experience.”
Wilkes buckled down and learned the sport from the ground up, eventually graduating to a job riding the animals he'd fallen in love with for trainer Colin Hayes. Officially a “strapper,” Wilkes was entirely responsible for the care and exercise of four horses. He cleaned stalls, groomed, and rode each horse every day for six months.
One of his co-workers with Hayes had just returned from the United States, where she'd worked for future Hall of Fame trainer Carl Nafzger. After a couple of phone calls, Wilkes had talked himself into a job there as well. He didn't realize it would take six more months to receive his work visa.
“I thought you'd just get a visa and go; I was young, I didn't know,” he said. “In that six months it took me to get a visa, my future wife and I met, and then Tracey came with me that year.”
The year was 1990. Nafzger immediately put the 25-year-old Wilkes to work galloping the best colt in his barn. It was Unbridled. When the 3-year-old son of Fappiano won the Kentucky Derby beneath the Twin Spires, Wilkes was hooked.
“That year we had unbelievable horses,” he said, voice choking up a bit with emotion. “It was like if we led them over to the races, they won, just like that.”
Unbridled went on to run second in the Preakness and fourth in the Belmont; later that year, he won the Breeders' Cup Classic. In the meantime, Wilkes and his future wife Tracey were thoroughly enjoying what they saw as a “working vacation” in the States.
“We worked, and we worked all day, got paid well, and we went out most nights to get something to eat, and we may have partied a little,” he said with a smile. “You know, we just had a good time. That was the biggest thing when we came to America. They always say 'things are bigger and better in America,' so the one thing we wanted when we came here was to buy a car that we could have a picnic on. We bought an '88 Delta Oldsmobile for 350 dollars. It was a fun car, and we did have a picnic on it.”
Enamored with the ease with which he'd risen to working with the best horses, Wilkes returned to Australia and set up shop on his own. The first year, he broke in 50 babies and had 20 horses in training. Though he won seven races that year, Wilkes struggled to make ends meet.
“I mismanaged my business,” he admitted. “I was broke, and we had no money. It was a valuable lesson.”
After moving in with Tracey's parents, Wilkes realized he had a lot more to learn about the subtleties of the business side of training racehorses. Tracey agreed to return to the United States at his side, and they both went back to work for Nafzger in 1993. This time, Wilkes would be his assistant.
One of the major differences Wilkes found in American racing over Australian was the bandaging of horses' legs in the stall.
“We never used to put bandages on unless there was an issue,” he said. “But it's like when you're in Rome, you do as the Romans do. I understand why they do it here. Anytime you do them up in alcohol, you're creating blood flow. Anytime you've got blood flow, you create healing. You want to keep it that way. It's also a little more protective, if you've got a horse that jumps around or if he got cast in the stall. It's just different.”
In 2006, Nafzger turned over the majority of his clients to Wilkes. The semi-retired trainer kept a pair of owners that had been in the barn for more than 25 years, including Jim Tafel.
The two trainers still operated in the same barn space on the backside, and each assisted the other as needed. Wilkes helped Nafzger develop Tafel's colt Street Sense, winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and then the 2007 Kentucky Derby, cementing Nafzger's induction into the Hall of Fame in 2008.
One of the unique aspects of horsemanship that Nafzger taught Wilkes over their years together was how to use acupuncture and chiropractic tools.
“We know how to go over a horse acupuncturally and how to adjust them ourselves,” Wilkes explained. “The acupuncture doesn't lie; it's just whether you read it right or read it wrong. It's a great tool because if you can keep them well-balanced, you can try to minimize what can happen.”
Wilkes found success fairly quickly, recording over $1 million in earnings every year since 2008. His first really big horse came in 2012, when Fort Larned won the G1 Whitney Stakes, then upset the Breeders' Cup Classic at 9-1.
“I've just been fortunate,” Wilkes said. “I've got some great owners that give me some nice horses. It's simple, black and white: I've got good horses. The big thing when you get a good horse is you don't get in the way, don't screw them up. That's what I was always told.”
This year, the focus is on 2-year-old McCraken. One of Wilkes' concerns is having the colt peak at the right time to be a serious Kentucky Derby contender. In the case of Fort Larned, he intentionally allowed the horse to regress a bit in the race between his Whitney and Breeders' Cup victories: Fort Larned finished third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Now, Wilkes is busy developing a plan to ensure that McCraken will be at his best for the Derby.
“He's got a great turn of foot, and he's got a great mind,” Wilkes said. “What he's shown me, the horse belongs with a chance to get to the Derby. So I've earmarked the Derby; that's my race, that's where I want to be. So how and why, which races I go to, right now I'm still not sure yet. I'll just watch him for the next month, then make a plan and talk to (owner) Mrs. (Janis) Whitham on how we want to bring him in. It's a case of wanting to bring him in, having him peak at 110 percent on the first Saturday in May. If he's good enough, he'll take me there.”
And in case there's ever any doubt in his plans, Wilkes always has Nafzger available to discuss important decisions.
“It's a standard joke in the barn: 'my Hall of Fame assistant will take over,'” laughed Wilkes. “We have fun with that.”
Forever humble about the opportunities he has received, Wilkes insists that without his family, he wouldn't be where he is today. He and Tracey have two children; a daughter, Shelby, married to jockey Chris Landeros, and a son, Brodie, currently galloping for Godolphin in Australia.
“I wouldn't be here without my wife,” Wilkes said, explaining that she still gets on horses in the mornings. “If she'd said no when I wanted to come back (to America) in '93, I wouldn't have come back. My name's in the program, but she's definitely there too.”
Brodie, meanwhile, is Wilkes' hope to take over the family business one day.
“I told him he's got 15 years,” Wilkes said. “I said, 'go out, have fun, learn as much as you can and I'll see you in 15 years.' I'll do the same thing with him that (Nafzger) did for me.”
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