February is a very good time to have an ascending 3-year-old colt on the road to the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby. Janis Whitham and Ian Wilkes, the respective owner-breeder and trainer of Saturday's G3 Sam F. Davis winner McCraken, are enjoying the ride.
“We're all excited,” Wilkes said in the blush of the Ghostzapper colt's 1 ½-length victory at Tampa Bay Downs, his fourth in as many starts and his first as a 3-year-old. “We have to enjoy it. That's the main thing.”
Wilkes has been down this path before, though he wasn't the one in the spotlight. In 1989, shortly after coming to the United States from Australia, Wilkes landed a job with trainer Carl Nafzger and wound up galloping the 1990 Kentucky Derby winner, Unbridled. Years later, firmly entrenched as Nafzger's top assistant, Wilkes brought 2006 Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Street Sense to the Oldsmar, Fla., track for his 3-year-old debut to win the Tampa Bay Derby en route to a victory in the 2007 Kentucky Derby.
McCraken is the first legitimate Kentucky Derby candidate for Janis Whitham, who's been in the game a long time.
“It does feel different,” she admitted after her homebred colt added the Sam F. Davis to a trio of victories at Churchill Downs last fall: a maiden race going 6 ½ furlongs Oct. 2, the one-mile Street Sense Oct. 30 and the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at 1 1/16 miles Nov. 26.
Each win, accomplished with Brian Hernandez Jr. in the saddle, has been thoroughly professional, McCraken coming from off the pace and showing a good turn of foot whenever his jockey asked. He looks to be improving with every start.
Whitham has had plenty of top-class runners since she and her late husband, Frank, became Thoroughbred owners more than 30 years ago. There was the two-time champion mare Bayakoa, the Argentine import who won back-to-back Breeders' Cup Distaffs for Ron McAnally in 1989 and '90 and was inducted in the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 1998.
More recently, Fort Larned carried the Whitham family's red and silver colors to victory in the 2012 Breeders' Cup Classic. Fort Larned, whose dam, Arlucea, was produced from Bayakoa, earned nearly $4.5 million racing and retired to stud at Adena Springs near Paris, Ky. His first crop of 2-year-olds hit the track this year.
Fort Larned was trained by Wilkes, 51, who took out his trainer's license in 2005 after Hall of Famer Nafzger said he was going to cut back his stable and ease into semi-retirement. Many of Nafzger's clients, including Street Sense's late owner, Jim Tafel, and Janis Whitham, stuck with Wilkes when Nafzger retired.
McCraken traces back to the first Thoroughbred Frank and Janis Whitham bought 34 years ago, said Frank Penn, the owner of Pennbrook Farm near Lexington where the Whitham mares boarded until Penn's retirement. McCraken was foaled and raised at Dr. H. Steve Conboy's Maple Lane Farm under the management of Denise M. Dillon. The Whitham mares have boarded there since 2011.
“I bought this colt's third dam, Tuesday Evening, for them as a weanling,” Penn said after McCraken, who was raised at Pennbrook, cruised to his Tampa Bay Derby victory. Tuesday Evening, a daughter of Nodouble out of Mazda's Miracle, by New Policy, sold for $75,000 at the 1983 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky mixed sale from a dispersal of Dan Lasater's large racing and breeding operation.
“I still have the stall card,” Janis Whitham said with a laugh.
Whitham has lived 85 years on the Great Plains of western Kansas and she's known both triumph and tragedy. Frank Whitham worked hard and provided well for his family – he and his wife raised five sons and a daughter near the farming town of Leoti – building a major livestock business. He also was involved in banking and oil. One December day in 1993, Frank Whitham set off for Montana in a private plane with his longtime pilot and co-pilot to close a deal on a major land acquisition. The plane hit bad weather and crashed. There were no survivors.
Janis Whitham carried on the racing and breeding operation, the family rallying around her.
Tuesday Evening, that first purchase for the Whithams, did little on the racetrack, but she made her mark as a producer. One of her 12 foals before her death is 2003 was G3 winner Madame Pandit, a daughter of Wild Again who, to the cover of Dance Brightly, produced Grade 1 winner Mea Domina for Whitham. Madame Pandit also produced G3 winner Ivory Empress (by Seeking the Gold), dam of both McCraken and his older graded stakes-placed half brother Bondurant, by War Front. Bondurant, who was Ivory Empress' first foal, finished fifth in the G3 Tampa Bay Stakes in the race before the Tampa Bay Derby. Ivory Empress is currently in foal to Majesticperfection.
As Fasig-Tipton executive Terence Collier said following McCraken's victory, “He is a tribute to the Whithams' patience and staying power in our game.”
McCraken was the first half of a weekend 3-year-old stakes double for the Adena Springs stallion Ghostzapper. On Sunday, the Ghostzapper colt Iliad was an impressive winner of the G2 San Vicente going seven furlongs at Santa Anita in his stakes debut for owner Kaleem Shah and new trainer Doug O'Neill.
Wilkes didn't want to commit to McCraken's next start but said the day after the Sam F. Davis he was leaning toward the G2 Tampa Bay Derby on March 11. He was firm in saying he wants the colt to have three preps before the Kentucky Derby. That's one fewer than Unbridled had in 1990 and one more than Street Sense had in 2007. Both horses used the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland as their final prep. This year's renewal of the Blue Grass, demoted to G2 status in 2017, will be April 8, exactly four weeks after the Tampa Bay Derby and four weeks before the first Saturday in May.
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