Set as 7-5 Morning Line Favorite
By Dick Downey
McCraken will attempt to run his undefeated record to five wins against six rivals in Saturday's 1 1/8 mile Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
The Ian Wilkes trainee won the Sam F. Davis Stakes in his 2017 debut and is set to make his first start since then. He skipped the Tampa Bay Derby after Wilkes said the son of Ghostzapper sustained a mild ankle sprain.
Named after a small town in Kansas, McCraken is the current favorite for the Kentucky Derby. In Churchill Downs' Future Wager Pool 4 just ended on Sunday, his odds closed at 5.9-1. He's also the Blue Grass morning line favorite at 7-5.
The Blue Grass will be McCraken's first race at Keeneland. Last year, he was three-for-three at Churchill Downs, including a win of the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes to cap off the year.
McCraken has breezed three times at Keeneland since being shipped north from Palm Meadows Training Center in Florida. Regular jockey Brian Hernandez, Jr., was on board for Sunday's workout and said, “He does everything right on cue now. He goes around in perfect 12's and gets faster as he goes. He’s an amazing horse."
Chief among McCraken's Blue Grass rivals will be three graded stakes winners. In alphabetical order, they are J Boys Echo, Practical Joke and Tapwrit.
J Boys Echo, a son of Mineshaft, vaulted into the Kentucky Derby picture while winning the Gotham Stakes in early March. He arrived at trainer Dale Romans' barn at Churchill Downs on Sunday after connections considered, then rejected, the idea of running in the Florida Derby.
A $485,000 Keeneland Yearling Sale graduate, J Boys Echo returns to the scene of his maiden win. On Oct. 27 in his second career start and first at two turns, he blew away a field of 12 with a 5 1/2-length margin at the finish despite a rough trip under Robby Albarado.
Practical Joke is also a Keeneland Yearling Sale grad, fetching $240,000 in September 2015. Trainer Chad Brown also bypassed the Florida Derby, saying he wanted another week to prepare the son of Into Mischief. In his 2017 debut, Practical Joke ran a hard-fought race in the Fountain of Youth Stakes won by Gunnevera, edging Three Rules for second. Those two ran back in last Saturday's Florida Derby, finishing third and fifth.
The Blue Grass will be Practical Joke's first start at Keeneland. Last year he won the Hopeful Stakes and the Champagne Stakes before finishing third in the Breedsers' Cup Juvenile.
Tapwrit is in town for trainer Todd Pletcher, who's fresh off a win of the Florida Derby with Always Dreaming. The son of Tapit comes into the Blue Grass off a visually impressive victory in the Tampa Bay Derby and will try to turn the tables on McCraken, who beat him by by 1 1/2 length in the Sam F. Davis.
Tapwrit, a $1.2 million purchase at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga August 2015 Yearling Sale, set foot on the track at Keeneland for the first time Monday.
Wild Shot makes the race a reunion of sorts. He was beaten 1 1/4 length by McCraken in the Kentucky Jockey Club, ran fourth behind both McCracken and Tapwrit in the Sam F. Davis Stakes, and finished third behind Tapwrit in the Tampa Bay Derby. Rusty Arnold trains.
It's Your Nickel makes his graded stakes debut in the Blue Grass. The Ken McPeek trainee was last seen winning the John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park a week after scratching from the Risen Star Stakes.
Irap, a seven-race maiden, has competed in three graded stakes, most recently finishing fourth in the Sunland Derby. It's possible he could make the Kentucky Derby without winning a race.
Post time for the Blue Grass will be 6:17 EDT. The race will be featured along with the Wood Memorial and the Santa Anita Derby in a live telecast by NBC Sports from 5:30 to 7:30 EDT.
Toyota, which manufactures motor vehicles at it nearby Georgetown, Ky. plant, has sponsored the Blue Grass since 1996. Saturday will be the 93d running of the race, which was first staged in 1911.
Post draw quotes
Ken McPeek assistant Alan Shell, It’s Your Nickel; post 1, 20-1: “It is not ideal, but he seems very versatile. He’s won on three surfaces. He’s handled everything we’ve thrown at him.”
Ian Wilkes, McCraken; post 2, 7-5: “Post two is OK. I don’t think it will be any problem. Just leave things up to Brian to ride the race. The goal is the first Saturday in May, and he doesn’t have to win this race. I don’t want to put that pressure on the horse. If he gets the right race and moves forward, we’ll be fine.”
Dale Romans, J Boys Echo; post 3, 4-1: “Post position can’t be an excuse. The three is about as good as you can get in a seven-horse field. It’s a good field of horses. You have three or four that are really top horses.”
Todd Pletcher assistant Ginny DePasquale, Tapwrit; post 4, 5-2: “I’m very happy. He’s right in the middle, which is perfect. He can see horses on both sides. I think Todd will be pleased. It’s not a big field, so he will stay out of trouble.”
Jak Knelman, director of stallion services for Calumet Farm, breeder and owner of Wild Shot; post 5, 15-1: "He has been in a lot of big races and has been a consistent runner. He hasn’t gotten a big win under his belt, but he always tries really hard. We are pretty excited for this weekend. He worked really well. He went real easy and galloped out well.”
Doug O’Neill, Irap; post 6, 20-1: (via text): “It is a tough race, but our son of Tiznow has special ability if he puts it together. Blinkers off … here we go.”
Chad Brown, Practical Joke; post 7, 7-2: “I normally wouldn’t be thrilled with (the outside post), but it’s not a big field. I don’t think it’ll be a big issue.”
Kentucky Derby points going into the Toyota Blue Grass
Tapwrit - 54
J Boys Echo - 53
Practical Joke - 34
McCraken - 20
Wild Shot - 17
Irap - 14
It's Your Nickel - 0
Toyota Blue Grass entries in post position order
1 It's Your Nickel, J Graham, 20-1
2 McCraken, B Hernandez Jr, 7-5
3 J Boys Echo, R Albarado, 4-1
4 Tapwrit, J Ortiz, 5-2
5 Wild Shot, C Lanerie, 15-1
6 Irap, J Leparoux, 20-1
7 Practical Joke, J Rosario, 7-2
All carry 123 pounds