McCraken, the probable favorite for Saturday’s Grade II, $1 million Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, worked a half-mile in :49.40 over a fast main track after the Sunday morning renovation break at Keeneland.
With jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. aboard, McCraken backtracked alongside a pony to the seven-eighths pole before starting his solo journey. Breaking off at the half-mile pole, McCraken posted fractions of :12.60, :25, :37 and galloped out 5 furlongs in 1:01.20 and 6 furlongs in 1:13.80.
“I thought the work was very good,” trainer Ian Wilkes said. “It was a nice half, and he galloped out strong another quarter and I was pleased with how he did it.”
It was the third Keeneland work for McCraken, who missed a scheduled start in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby because of a minor injury to his left front ankle.
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“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.”
For Hernandez, the work capped off a whirlwind 24 hours. Yesterday, he rode Girvin to win the Grade II Louisiana Derby, then drove all night with his family from New Orleans. He arrived at Keeneland in time for the work.
“It was worth it,” Hernandez said with a laugh of the 10-hour ride. “Every rider’s dream is to be in the spot I’m in.
“I’m good friends with both (connections),” he continued. “I’m happy for (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.”
Hernandez likes what he has seen from McCraken, who launched his unblemished career last October and who has had Hernandez aboard for all four of his victories.
“He does everything right on cue now,” Hernandez said. “He goes around in perfect 12s (seconds for an eighth of a mile) and gets faster as he goes. He’s an amazing horse.
“Last year he worked five-eighths before the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club 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.”
It’s Your Nickel
With Jack Gilligan aboard for trainer Kenny McPeek, It’s Your Nickel worked 5 furlongs in 1:01.60 after Sunday’s renovation break.
Keeneland clockers caught him in fractions of :13.20, :25.40, :37.60, :50.40, 1:01.60 and out 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,” Alan Shell, McPeek’s assistant, 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.”
By Dialed In, It’s Your Nickel scored his maiden victory in August over the turf course at Saratoga in the second start of his career. He made his 2017 debut in a Jan. 27 allowance race at Fair Grounds in which he finished second but was elevated to first after the winner was disqualified. In his most recent race, It’s Your Nickel drew off to a 6½-length victory in the John Battaglia Memorial on March 4 at Turfway Park.
Today’s work marked the third at Keeneland for It’s Your Nickel, who worked a half-mile in :47.40 on March 20 in company with Purely a Dream, who five days later won the Grade III Bourbonette Oaks at Turfway. The time was the fastest of nine at the distance.
On March 27 at Keeneland, It’s Your Nickel worked 5 furlongs in 1:02.60, also in company.
“He’s a horse who doesn’t have to have company,” Shell said. “He’s fit.”
Also on the track
Two other Toyota Blue Grass horses at Keeneland galloped Sunday morning.
Wild Shot galloped on the main shortly after the track opened with Jozefat Calvo aboard for trainer Rusty Arnold.
Irap made his first trip to the main track and galloped 1¼ miles under Antonio Romero for trainer Doug O’Neill. Irap went to the all-weather training track the previous two days.
Two other likely starters for the Toyota Blue Grass on Saturday — two-time Grade 1 winner Practical Joke and Tampa Bay Derby (G2) winner Tapwrit — were scheduled to arrive at Keeneland from South Florida Sunday afternoon.
Trainer Wesley Ward said Keeneland’s listed Giant’s Causeway, at 5½ furlongs on turf on April 15, is scheduled to be the 2017 debut of Lady Aurelia, Europe’s champion 2-year-old filly of 2016.
“(The Giant’s Causeway) gives us good spacing to go to the (June 20) King’s Stand (Grade I), which is five-eighths (of a mile) at Royal Ascot (in England),” Ward said.
On Sunday morning, co-owner Barbara Banke of Stonestreet and Ward watched Lady Aurelia’s first work of the year over the Keeneland turf course. Working with Ward’s 3-year-old maiden winner Bound for Nowhere, the Scat Daddy filly covered 5 furlongs over the firm turf in 1:00.20. Bound for Nowhere to her inside was clocked in 1:01.20.
“Beautiful work — everything we want,” Ward said about Lady Aurelia. “Finished with speed to spare.”
During Keeneland’s 2016 Spring Meet, Lady Aurelia captured her career debut in track-record time and went on to win the Grade II Queen Mary at Royal Ascot and Grade I Darley Prix Morny at Deauville in France. She was third in the Grade I Connolly’s Red Mills Cheveley Park at Newmarket in England.
Banke said Lady Aurelia, a graduate of Keeneland’s 2015 September Yearling Sale, already ranks among Stonestreet’s top runners, which include Horses of the Year Curlin and Rachel Alexandra.
“She’s right up there at the top, another champion, a European champion,” Banke said. “We gotta do that (running American horses overseas) more. It’s important just to show the breadth and speed of American bloodstock and make people want to come over here and buy our yearlings at the Keeneland sale.”
Jenny Wiley nominations
Lady Eli is one of five Grade I winners among the 19 nominees to the 29th running of the Grade I, $350,000 Coolmore Jenny Wiley for fillies and mares to be run Saturday, April 15.
A three-time Grade I winner trained by Chad Brown, Lady Eli has not raced since a runner-up finish (beaten a nose) in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf in November.
Other Grade I winners nominated to the 1 1/16-mile grass test are Canadian Horse of the Year Catch a Glimpse and Celestine, plus the 1-2 finishers from last fall’s Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup, Time and Motion and Harmonize. On Saturday, Celestine won the Grade II Honey Fox at Gulfstream Park.