By Bob Bauer
Undefeated sophomore McCraken showed the racing world that he is for real on Saturday with a dominating victory in the $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes (Grade 3).
He extended his perfect record to 4-for-4 and set a new Tampa Bay Downs track record of 1:42.45 for 1 1/16 miles on the dirt track listed as fast.
The previous record of 1:42.82 was set last year by Destin in the Tampa Bay Derby (Grade 2) for 3-year-olds.
Saturday’s win solidified McCraken’s status as a top contender for the Kentucky Derby (Grade 1), to be run May 6 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.
(Note: Photo of McCraken on the home page is courtesy of SV Photography)
The Tampa fans were well aware of this one’s ability, sending him to the post as a 3-2 favorite under journeyman Brian Hernandez Jr.
The bay colt was a prompt choice and pulled away to a comfortable 1 ½ length victory for trainer Ian Wilkes.
Tapwrit, at odds of 9-1, got up for second and 11-1 shot State of Honor was third. Wild Shot finished fourth in the nine-horse field.
The $2 exacta paid $41.60, The $1 trifecta $126.40.
McCraken was in seventh place after a half mile, six lengths behind State of Honor who led in 47:15 seconds.
The Kentucky-bred son of Ghostzapper then began gaining on the outside. He took the lead inside the eighth pole and did not appear threatened by the late rally of the Todd Pletcher-trained Tapwrit.
“You’ve just got to go with it and ride him with confidence,” said Hernandez, who has ridden McCraken in all four of his starts. “I asked him at about the half-mile pole and he hesitated a bit,” he added. “But I think that was his way of telling me ‘Don’t worry. We’re going to get the job done.’”
Kentucky Derby Points
The Sam F. Davis was a “Road to the Kentucky Derby” points scoring race.
McCraken earned ten points. Second through fourth place were worth four, two and one points respectively.
McCraken has 20 points, putting him tied for second in the standings.
Last year, it took 31 points to gain one of the 20 Kentucky Derby starting spots.
So, McCraken probably will need points in at least one more race.
One possibility is the $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby on March 11. It is a second round race, and the qualifying points are 50-20-10-5.
In 2007, Wilkes was an assistant trainer to his mentor Carl Nafzger who sent out Street Sense to win the Tampa Bay Derby. Street Sense became the only Tampa Bay Derby winner to win the Kentucky Derby.
“If he’s good enough, he’ll take us there,” Wilkes said of McCraken, a homebred of Whitham Thoroughbreds.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” he added. “This is not a one-race program. I want two more races for him, then the Derby. This is just one stepping stone, and we keep building.”
McCraken’s three previous wins were at Churchill Downs. The most recent was the 1 1/16 mile Kentucky Jockey Club (Grade 2) last Nov. 26.
His performance in the Sam F. Davis and his pedigree indicate he can handle the 1 ¼ mile Kentucky Derby.
Ghostzapper won the 1 ¼ mile Breeders’ Cup Classic (Grade 1) in 2004.
His maternal grand sire was Seeking the Gold. In 1988, that horse finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and second in the 1 ¼ mile Travers (Grade 1) for 3-year-olds at Saratoga.
8 -MCCRAKEN 5.00 3.60 2.80
7 -TAPWRIT 8.20 5.20
1 -STATE OF HONOR 6.20
$2 EXACTA 8-7 PAID $41.60; $1 TRIFECTA 8-7-1PAID $126.40; $1 SUPERFECTA 8-7-1-6 PAID $584.70
—Jim Freer contributed to this report.