Ian Wilkes has been down this road before. In 2007, as the assistant to Hall of Fame trainer Carl Nafzger, Wilkes brought Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Eclipse Award winner Street Sense to Tampa Bay Downs for the (then)-Grade III Tampa Bay Derby.
What ensued was, arguably, the most exciting stretch duel in the track’s history, with Street Sense and jockey Calvin Borel edging Any Given Saturday by a nose over the mile-and-a-sixteenth distance in 1:43.11, then the track record.
Two races later, Street Sense won the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, the second such success for his connections – including Wilkes, who had galloped 1990 Run for the Roses winner Unbridled for Nafzger as a fledgling 24-year-old horsemen from New South Wales, Australia.
Wilkes has built a substantial resume for himself in recent years, including his stellar work with Fort Larned in 2012, when he engineered an outstanding season that culminated in a Breeders’ Cup Classic victory at Santa Anita.
This year, Wilkes has classic aspirations with his 3-year-old unbeaten colt McCraken (like Fort Larned, a homebred from the Whitham Thoroughbreds operation of Janis Whitham), who he is pointing toward the Grade III, $ 250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes at the Oldsmar oval on Feb. 11.
The Sam F. Davis Stakes is a “Road to the Kentucky Derby” points race, awarding points to the first four finishers toward qualifying for the starting gate at Churchill Downs on May 6.
McCraken, who won the Street Sense Stakes at Churchill Downs on Oct. 30, then concluded his 2-year-old campaign with a victory in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes on Nov. 26, is by Ghostzapper out of Ivory Empress, by Seeking the Gold. His jockey is Brian Hernandez, Jr., the regular pilot aboard Fort Larned.
McCraken breezed five furlongs Wednesday in 1:00.45 at Wilkes’ Palm Meadows Training Center base in Boynton Beach, the fastest of 10 works that day at the distance.
“Everything went well. He was professional and relaxed, sat just behind another horse, finished well and galloped out strong,” Wilkes said. “He got everything I wanted out of the work.”
Wilkes considers McCraken his first legitimate Kentucky Derby prospect since his experience with Street Sense. “(McCraken) has always shown he is very talented,” Wilkes said. “He has matured a little since he last ran, and I think he’s stronger now. He’s a nice horse who can be a little playful, and I love being around him.”
Unlike Street Sense, for whom Nafzger had mapped out a plan leading to Louisville at the start of his 3-year-old campaign, Wilkes is letting McCraken dictate what comes next on a race-to-race basis.
“I don’t want a tough, tough race for him yet. I want a race that will enable him to move forward right now,” he said. “I’ve had good luck at Tampa Bay Downs, so we’re planning to start him in the Davis and see where he takes us.”
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