Ian Wilkes worked for Carl Nafzger. So Wilkes was around 1990 Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled. He was in the barn with 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense. Now, on his own, Wilkes trains possible 2017 Kentucky Derby favorite McCraken.
The obvious question: Are there similarities?
“You really don’t want to get comparing horses,” Wilkes said Tuesday after the draw for Saturday’s $1 million Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. “The one thing they do have is they have a great turn of foot. All three have a great turn of foot. And I think that’s really essential going into the big races.”
McCraken will need that in Saturday’s big race what with the Blue Grass boasting its strongest field in years. In fact, just when Keeneland’s signature event was downgraded from a Grade 1 to a Grade 2, it arguably offers the stiffest test of any prep for this year’s Kentucky Derby.
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“I didn’t think it should have been downgraded,” said Wilkes during the NTRA’s weekly teleconference on Tuesday afternoon. “But I don’t make those decisions.”
With four wins in four lifetime starts, McCraken enters the Blue Grass as the 7-5 favorite. Tampa Bay Derby winner Tapwrit is second choice at 5-2. Multiple Grade 1 stakes winner Practical Joke is third choice at 7-2. Gotham Stakes winner J Boys Echo, trained by Dale Romans, is next at 4-1.
McCraken is just 17th in the Kentucky Derby points standings, a ranking that has less to do with ability than bad luck. With the Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby being run Saturday and the Arkansas Derby scheduled for next week, McCraken may need to hit the board Saturday to earn a spot at Churchill Downs.
“If you’re good enough, you’re going to get in it,” Wilkes said Tuesday. “If I’m good enough, I’ll get the points and move on.”
The 51-year-old Australian knows what’s good enough. He came to the United States in 1989 to work for Nafzger and a year later was galloping Unbridled. After a brief return to Australia, Wilkes rejoined Nafzger in 1993. A little more than a decade later, Nafzger turned over much of his barn to Wilkes and went into semi-retirement. He kept a few clients, one of whom was James Tafel, owner of Street Sense.
In the meantime, Wilkes won the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic with Fort Larned. Few people ask about the Breeders’ Cup, however, said Wilkes. Everyone asks if he’s won the Kentucky Derby.
If you’re good enough, you’re going to get in it. If I’m good enough, I’ll get the points and move on.
McCraken trainer Ian Wilkes
McCraken would be his first crack at it. Owned by Janis Whitham, McCraken is named for the town of McCracken in her native Kansas. Lost in the paperwork was the third “c” so the horse goes by McCraken. No matter the spelling, he’s plenty fast.
His career debut produced a victory at Churchill Downs on Oct. 2. He won the Street Sense Stakes at Churchill on Oct. 30. On Nov. 26, McCraken made it three straight at Churchill by winning the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes.
As a 3-year-old, he set a stakes record in taking the Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 11. He has not raced since, however. An ankle strain kept him out of the Tampa Bay Derby.
“First of all, I had to take care of the horse. The horse has taken care of me from the get-go,” Wilkes said. “All I did was miss one work. I couldn’t get the kind of work to lead into the Tampa Bay Derby.”
At the time, Wilkes was unhappy. He now feels better about the situation.
“I really feel he’s bigger, he’s stronger now. He’s developed more,” said the trainer. “At the time, I didn’t like it, but it may have been a blessing for me.”
Wilkes wants to win Saturday — “It’s a very prestigious race, so you want to win it,” he said — but he’s more concerned with McCraken being fit for Louisville.
“I just want a good race,” he said. “I think he needs it.”
And if a Blue Grass win leads to favorite status the first Saturday in May?
“That’s fine,” Wilkes said. “Better that than not even being in there.”
Blue Grass Stakes field
It’s Your Nickel
Brian Hernandez Jr.
J Boys Echo
George R. Arnold
Toyota Blue Grass Stakes
What: $1 million Grade II 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 Network