It’s not hard to imagine ways that Saturday’s Kentucky Derby could have featured a single standout favorite instead of four contenders — maybe more — vying for stardom.
The simplest way it could have been different involves the colt with the misspelled name of McCraken.
Going into last month’s Blue Grass Stakes, McCraken was undefeated through four career starts, No. 1 in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s 3-year-old rankings, and favored in Kentucky Derby future wagering. He was one win away from going to Louisville as the clear horse to beat.
But he finished third in the Blue Grass. And in that minute and 50 seconds, he went from a perfect record and the Derby horse to beat to a recently defeated horse and the co-second choice, at 5-1, on the Derby morning line.
It says here that questions stemming from McCraken’s lone loss can be answered easily enough to make him a good bet.
McCraken probably wasn’t fully fit for the Blue Grass, which was his first start in nearly three months, because of a minor ankle injury that appeared after he won the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs.
The Blue Grass’s lack of early speed made it hard for McCraken, who characteristically slipped toward the back of the pack midway through the race, to make up ground on longshot winner Irap. The pace should be much quicker Saturday.
Then there’s the human factor that makes the Blue Grass setback look like a positive step.
McCraken’s trainer, Australian-born Ian Wilkes, knew that while the Blue Grass is a big race in its own right, the aim wasn’t to win April 8 but to get ready for the first Saturday in May.
Wilkes has displayed that wisdom before, notably with Fort Larned, the horse who won the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita a month after a third-place disappointment in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park. Fort Larned’s breeder-owner, Janis Whitham, and jockey, Brian Hernandez, are the same as McCraken’s. (Whitham named the horse for the town of McCracken in her native Kansas, and the spelling got messed up in paperwork).
Wilkes learned well while coming up as an assistant to Carl Nafzger. That Hall of Fame trainer won the Derby twice. In 1990, Unbridled won it after seeming to take a step back with a third-place finish in the Blue Grass. In 2007, Street Sense won it after finishing second as a heavy favorite in the Blue Grass.
Strong cases can be made for three other horses — at least — on Saturday:
- Classic Empire (4-1), the 2-year-old champion, came back from his own minor injury to win the Arkansas Derby and may simply be the class of this field.
- Always Dreaming (5-1) ran away with the Florida Derby and should be in front of the other favorites early.
- Irish War Cry (6-1) won the Wood Memorial with an impressive early attack on a fast pace, and is the only horse with two 100-plus Beyer speed figures.
I like Irish War Cry as the early threat and McCraken late. I plan to bet McCraken to win and emphasize those two horses in exotic bets along with any or all of Classic Empire, Always Dreaming, Battle of Midway, Tapwrit and Gunnevera.
Kevin Modesti is a Southern California News Group editorial writer. As a sports writer, he covered 16 runnings of the Kentucky Derby.
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