Trainer Ian Wilkes doesn’t mind McCraken’s role as the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby or this Saturday’s 93rd running of the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
McCraken, No. 1 in the latest NTRA top 3-year-old poll and the slight favorite in the Kentucky Derby Futures Pool, drew the No. 2 post in the $1 million Blue Grass on Tuesday and was named the morning-line favorite at odds of 7-5.
“It’s better to be that than not in there,” Wilkes said. “You’ve got to enjoy it and have a good time. You can’t get too caught up in the situation. You’ve just got to let it happen and don’t put too much pressure on the horse.”
Though downgraded to a Grade 2 stakes race this year, the 1 1/8 mile Blue Grass remains one of the major prep races for the Derby with 170 Road to the Kentucky Derby series points on the line Saturday: 100 for the winner, 40 for second, 20 for third and 10 for fourth.
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“It’s better now that it’s on dirt,” Wilkes said of the Blue Grass. “If any time it should have been downgraded was when it was on Polytrack. But here? No. It’s so prestigious. A race like this and the Wood (Memorial), they’re prestigious races. Anyone would love to win these races.”
McCraken, owned by Whitman Thoroughbreds, is unbeaten in four graded stakes, but has not run since the Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 11. He missed his last scheduled start in the Tampa Bay Derby due to a minor left front ankle injury but has given his connections no worries in preparation for the Blue Grass. And Wilkes said he’s not concerned about the layoff.
“I probably could have run him (in the Tampa Bay), but he’s taken care of me, so it was my turn to take care of him,” Wilkes said. “I really feel now, he’s bigger, he’s stronger. He’s developed more. At the time, I didn’t like it, but it may have been a blessing for me.”
Second choice at 5-2 is Tapwrit, the Todd Pletcher-trained colt who won the Tampa Bay and ran second to McCraken in the Sam F. Davis. With 54 Derby points earned, Tapwrit is fairly secure in his placement at Churchill Downs.
“I think Todd just wants to get him one more race before the Derby just to keep him mentally fit and physically fit,” Pletcher assistant Ginny Pasquale said. “I think he’s maturing mentally … He’s settled in very nicely. I was very pleased. He’s made himself right at home here (at Keeneland).”
Practical Joke, who ran third in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and second March 4 in the Fountain of Youth to Gunnerva is third choice at 7-2.
Daddys Little Darling was made the 5-2 favorite in Saturday’s $500,000 Central Bank Ashland Stakes for 3-year-old fillies.
The Ashland, raced over 1 1/16 miles, is a major prep race for Churchill Downs’ Kentucky Oaks with 170 Oaks points at stake, 100 for the winner. The Keeneland race has produced the last two Oaks winners.
“She doesn’t like to be way out there, so we’re in a good spot,” said owner Nancy Polk of Normandy Farm. “We like the post position, and she’s been training well so hopefully she’s going to be ready. She likes this track.”
Toyota Blue Grass Stakes
What: $1 million Grade 2 stakes race for 3-year-olds on dirt, a major prep race for next month’s Kentucky Derby
Where: Keeneland Race Course
Post time: 6:17 p.m.
Distance: 1 1/8 miles
TV: NBC Sports
Field with post position and odds:
1-It’s Your Nickel (20-1)
3-J Boys Echo (4-1)
5-Wild Shot ( 15-1)
6-Irap ( 20-1)
7-Practical Joke (7-2)
Keeneland Spring Meet
When: Friday through April 28 with no racing on Mondays and Tuesdays or April 16.
First post: 1:05 p.m. each day