Ghostzapper's McCraken Secures Third Graded Victory

06.17.2017 -

Ian Wilkes hasn't lost faith.

He still believes that when the dust storm that is this year's 3-year-old male division clears, Janis Whitham's homebred McCraken will make it so his trainer won't have to say a word to convince the masses of the talents of the son of Ghostzapper.

There will be several statements that need to be made between now and season's end but the first step toward what McCraken's connections hope will be a second-half resurgence went exactly in the manner those around the multiple graded stakes winner would have scripted.

The McCraken that inspires such confidence from Wilkes is the one that showed up in the June 17 Matt Winn Stakes (G3) at Churchill Downs, unleashing his typical kick after ranging up on the final turn en route to a 2 1/4-length triumph in his first outing since finishing eighth in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1). 

There is inherent pressure to deliver anytime a trainer saddles a 1-5 favorite in a field. Given the level of expectations McCraken has carried for much of his career, Wilkes just wanted to see the bay colt run like the version of himself that was widely regarded as one of the leaders of the sophomore ranks.

On Saturday night, after getting away a bit awkwardly out of post 2 in the 1 1/16-miles Matt Winn, McCraken proceeded to look like the stalwart who was unbeaten in his first four outings as he tracked along second-last in the six-horse field before accelerating on cue when nudged by jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. around the final turn.

"It's both joy and relief just to see him back running," Wilkes said of McCraken, who emerged from his rough Derby outing with a puncture wound by his left hind ankle. "I know good he is, but he has to go and prove it. I can't go and say it; I can't go and tell everyone how good he is. He has to go and prove it. The other horses have done it, they've won the Derby, the Preakness (Stakes [G1]), and the Belmont (Stakes [G1]. We haven't so we have to prove it."

Wilkes' spirits were lifted early in the Matt Winn as he watched his charge loping along in a relaxed manner as Aquamarine under Florent Geroux carved out fractions of :23.58 and :47.48 with Mo's Mojo sitting about a length off in second. When Aquamarine gave it up in the final quarter and dropped back on the rail, McCraken was clear in the four-wide path and moving with confidence under Hernandez. 

It became a battle for second a handful of strides later as McCraken opened a two-length advantage under left-handed urging and stopped the teletimer in 1:42.84 on a fast track for his fourth win in five career starts at Churchill.

"His last couple races in the Derby and even in the Blue Grass, he left a little on his toes and today he was kind of back to his old self where he got into a nice rhythm around there and wasn't wanting to overdo it in the first part," Hernandez said. "Then he kind of just built his confidence up as he went along and he went on by those horses pretty easily. You always hear it but it really was the perfect race for a horse coming back.

"That was the good thing about this race today is he got confidence back in himself and now we can look forward to the rest of the year."

Out of the Seeking the Gold mare Ivory Empress, McCraken improved his record to five wins from seven starts overall and $472,228 in earnings.

Wilkes was non-committal on where McCraken might start next, citing his usual 'one-day-at-time' mantra. What he saw Saturday confirmed to him that the horse who captured the Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) in then-track record fashion during his seasonal bow hadn't lost his ability to inspire some lofty thoughts.

"I still think he's good, I still think he's one of the best," Wilkes said. "Now I have to let him do it."

Within 20 minutes of McCraken leaving the winner's circle Ghostzapper was represented by his 30th lifetime graded winner when Faypien conquered the Summertime Oaks (G2) at Santa Anita. 

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