Janis Whitham's homebred McCraken, who suffered a hing leg laceration during the running of the Kentucky Derby to finish eighth, returned to the races in style on Saturday night beneath the same Twin Spires. The 3-year-old son of Ghostzapper, ridden by Brian Hernandez, Jr., hopped a bit at the start and was squeezed back by rivals on either side, but came from last in the six-colt field to win by about two lengths on the winner. Trained by Ian Wilkes, McCraken recorded 1 1/16 miles over Churchill's fast main track in 1:42.84.
“I didn't give Brian any instructions,” Wilkes said. “I just told him when I legged him up, 'you know him. You ride him. Ride with some confidence.'”
McCraken appeared to startle a bit at the starting bell, jumping up instead of out in the first milliseconds of the race, then was crowded on either side by Excitations and Colonelsdarktemper when he left the box. Hernandez helped his colt to settle, finding his stride at the rear of the field, then began picking up rivals as they made their way around the first turn.
Meanwhile, Aquamarine was out to a fast start and shot straight to the lead to set early fractions of 23.58 and 47.48 seconds. Tracking that leader was Mo's Mojo in second with Colonelsdarktemper on the outside of Excitations. McCraken came up to be fifth behind them, then the field began closing in toward the leading Aquamarine approaching the far turn. Mo's Mojo was the first to challenge the leader, joined by Colonelsdarktemper as McCraken came up four-wide in the turn for home.
McCraken had the lead by a half-length at the head of the lane, and quickly extended it to two lengths as he straightened for home, despite going a bit wider than necessary around the last bit of the turn. Hernandez had to stay busy on the colt to keep his mind on the race down the lane, but McCraken held on to finish two lengths better than Colonelsdarktemper at the wire. Society Beau came from well of the pace to finish third, and Mo's Mojo was fourth.
“Today, he was kind of back to his old self where he got into a nice rhythm around there,” Hernandez said. “He wasn't wanting to overdo it the first part and then he just kind of built his confidence up as he went. … He went on by those horses pretty easily and thought he lane he kind of did it the right way. You always hear it, but it was actually the perfect race that you're looking for for a horse coming back.”
Bred in Kentucky by his owner, McCraken is named for a small town in Kansas (mispelled on the foal papers; the town's name is McCracken). He broke his maiden at first asking and was undefeated through his first four starts, including the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club and G3 Sam F. Davis. An ankle injury kept him out of the Tampa Bay Derby, and instead landed the colt in the Blue Grass. A bit short that day, McCraken came in third, and a series of pushing and shoving at the start of the Kentucky Derby left McCraken with a laceration on his hind leg, that, while not seriously threatening, may well have affected his performance. Overall, the colt now boasts a record of five wins from seven starts with earnings of over $470,000.
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