Janis Whitham’s McCraken took another giant step on the Road to the Kentucky Derby (GI) on Saturday with an impressive near last-to-first victory by 1 ½ lengths in Saturday’s $200,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes (GIII) at Tampa Bay Downs. The bay Kentucky-bred son of Ghostzapper remains undefeated in four careers starts and added the latest stakes score to his previous wins in the Street Sense Stakes and Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (GII) last year. The Ian Wilkes trainee has now earned $310,848.
Under jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. McCraken sat near the back of the pack and in front of just two rivals, saving as much ground as possible as State of Honor set all the pace in splits of :23.63, :47.15 and 1:10.90. As the early leader made his way around the far bend, McCraken was asked for his best run and while racing four wide and passing his tiring rivals with virtually every stride, had reached nearly even terms with his frontrunning rival and had only him and a charging Wild Shot left to pass in the lane. While racing well out toward the center of the track, McCraken reached the lead in deep stretch and continued on to win under a mild left-handed whip.
Wild Shot posted the one-mile split of 1:36.05 before McCraken finished the 1 1/16-mile fast main track test in track record time of 1:42.45.
“He puts a lot of confidence in you, that’s for sure,” Hernandez said. “You’ve just got to go with it and ride him with confidence. I asked him at about the half-mile pole and he hesitated a bit, but I think that was his way of telling me, ‘Don’t worry. We’re going to get the job done.’ ”
As the 3-2 favorite in the field of nine, McCraken returned $5, $3.60 and $2.80. Tapwrit, who closed from his position mid-pack in the early going, completed the $41.60 exacta and was worth $8.20 and $5.20 at odds of nearly 10-1. State of Honor held on to third, crossing the wire a length behind the runner-up, and paying $6.20 at nearly 12-1. The trifecta was good for $126.40.
Wild Shot, Fact Finding, No Dozing, Six Gun Salute, Chance of Luck and King and His Court completed the order of finish.
Wilkes, who was an assistant to trainer Carl Nafzger when both Unbridled (1990) and Street Sense (2007) won the Kentucky Derby (GI), said McCraken will continue down the Triple Crown trail.
“If he’s good enough, he’ll take us there,” Wilkes said. “We’ve got a long way to go. 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.
“Let’s pay all credit to the horse. He’s taking us there. Let’s pay attention to him.”