Janis Whitham’s rising star McCraken is just one of several graded stakes contenders that could give trainer Ian Wilkes a successful Thanksgiving weekend at Churchill Downs.
The highly-regarded son of Ghostzapper created buzz following his Oct. 2 maiden victory at Churchill Downs and even more so after an emphatic 3 ¾-length win in the Street Sense Overnight Stakes on opening day of the Fall Meet. He’ll put his undefeated record on the line in the $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club (Grade II) on Nov. 26, where he figures to be one of the horses to beat.
“It may appear that way but they still have to run the race,” Wilkes said. “Whether there are 10 or 12 horses in the starting gate, they still have to run. He’s a nice colt but you still got to break good, get a good trip. He always has worked well, always showed that he had a lot of talent, but how good he is you never know until you put him in that starting gate. (Two turns) shouldn’t be an issue for him. He’s bred to get two turns and the way he runs and the way he wants to do things I don’t think it will be a problem with him. He’s always showed how talented he is but you just never know until they start racing.”
Prior to his win last time out, McCraken expressed some restless antics in the Churchill Downs paddock.
“He can do that sometimes, he’s a good feeling horse,” Wilkes said. “He goes to the pony on most mornings when he trains and he behaves himself well but sometimes he just gets to feeling himself.
“One race at a time, it’s a long way to go and anything can happen. We haven’t won the Jockey Club yet. Everyone seems to be handing it to him but he hasn’t won it yet. He’s got to go out and do it and go out and earn it. There are a lot of good 2-year-olds out there right now. Just look how strong the colts are this year. Look at the ones that ran one-two in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile: Dale (Romans’ Not This Time) and Mark Casse’s (Classic Empire), they’re nice horses. You can’t let yourself get too far ahead.”
On the same day Wilkes will start Fun, a third-place finisher of the Darley Alcibiades (GI) last out, in the $200,000 Golden Rod (GII). The daughter of Harlan’s Holiday found the winner’s circle first time out going 5 ½ furlongs at Churchill Downs on June 24 before finishing behind Sweet Loretta in Saratoga’s Schuylerville (GIII) and Spinaway (GI) where she was second and fourth, respectively.
“She’s a nice filly,” Wilkes said. “She brings her game every time and runs her race. She’s been knocking on the door to win some of these races so hopefully she can get it done in there. She’s in good shape and right there to do it.”
On Thanksgiving Day, Wilkes will be represented by Sweetgrass and Walkabout in what appears to be a wide-open edition of the $200,000 Falls City Handicap (GII), a race that Wilkes won in 2008 with Miss Isella.
“I think they’ve got their work cut out for them and they’ll compete well,” Wilkes said. “Sweetgrass is graded stakes-placed but she needs a graded stakes win. Walkabout is a young filly that’s really shown that she’s been improving.”
Also on Thanksgiving Day, Wilkes will be out for redemption when he starts Thatcher Street in the River City Handicap (GIII), a race that he was second in last year behind front running Heart to Heart who will not make the trip for this year’s edition of the race and instead runs in Aqueduct’s $100,000 Artie Schiller Stakes. The son of Street Sense will go for his fourth win over the Churchill lawn and took this year’s Opening Verse Overnight Stakes over the Matt Winn Turf Course before finishing third behind Pleuven (FR) in the Wise Dan (GII) on June 18.
“Doesn’t look like (Heart to Heart) is coming this year but I’m sure it’s not going to be a pushover,” Wilkes said. “He ran well in it last year and ran one of his biggest numbers in it. He likes the track, he’s doing well and I’m real happy with him so we’ll see if we can get one better this year with him.”
Wilkes trainee Linda has shown improvement since switching from dirt to turf and will look to continue such progress in the $200,000 Mrs. Revere (GII) on Nov. 25. The daughter of Scat Daddy broke her maiden fifth time out at Ellis Park on July 31, her first start on the grass. She followed her maiden win with an allowance win at Kentucky Downs before finishing second behind Quidura in Keeneland’s Valley View (GIII).
“She’s really trained like a different animal now,” Wilkes said. “Her last race was very good for her for her first stakes race and now she’s coming against straight 3-year-olds and has trained exceptionally well. I’m very high on that filly.”
Overall, Wilkes is looking forward to what could be a big weekend for his stable.
“(Janis Whitham) is a very nice lady and a pleasure to train for,” Wilkes said. “You always want to see someone like that have a lot of success. A big weekend would mean a lot for the owners, the help and for the whole stable. That’s what we all try to do is be successful in these types of races.”
ARNOLD’S SUCCESSFUL FALL MEET COULD CARRYOVER INTO CLOSING WEEKEND – Trainer “Rusty” Arnold II has enjoyed a prosperous Fall Meet where he is the second leading trainer in wins behind Mike Maker with seven victories from 13 starts through Friday. The veteran horseman looks to land his first graded stakes win of the meet on Thanksgiving weekend when he sends out Romantic Vision in the $200,000 Falls City Handicap (GII), Behesht (FR) in the $100,000 River City Handicap (GIII) and Wild Shot in the Kentucky Jockey Club (GII).
“It’s been a perfect storm,” Arnold said by phone from his Keeneland base. “We’ve had a lot of horses that have fit the right conditions, the races have come up right, and the horses have gotten good rides. I’ve been on a lot of these runs, you start winning these races a bunch and then you go back down.”
Arnold hasn’t won the Kentucky Jockey Club since 1988 when he saddled Tricky Creek to a victory, but could get his third victory in the race with Wild Shot, who finished third behind Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI) winner Classic Empire in Keeneland’s Breeders’ Futurity (GI) last time out.
“He’s taken some pretty big jumps up the road,” Arnold said. “We put in a huge test in him last time out at Keeneland and he stepped up against some good ones so we expect another big race next Saturday. I’ve been lucky enough to have won the Jockey Club a couple of times and I feel hopeful that I can do it again.”
Romantic Vision will enter the Falls City Handicap off an upset allowance win at Keeneland on Oct. 12 where she was 18-1, an improved effort off of her well-beaten fifth in Churchill’s Locust Grove (GIII) during the September Meet.
“She’s really come around this fall and has gotten a whole lot better,” Arnold said. “I don’t know how we’ll match up against the rest of them but it doesn’t look like there’s anyone in there who is really overwhelming so we’re giving it a shot.”
Arnold also will run Behesht (FR) in the $100,000 River City Handicap (GIII), who comes off a well-beaten ninth in Keeneland’s Sycamore (GIII) on Oct. 20.
"I think shortening him up will help a whole lot,” Arnold said. “I thought he would run well but the turf was kind of funny at Keeneland last time.”
HERNANDEZ PULLS FOUR-BAGGER ON FRIDAY, EXCITED TO RIDE McCRACKEN – Jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. had a big day on Friday with four trips to the winner’s circle. The 30-year-old rider won with Bella Veloche (Race 1, $4.60), Raising Rumors (Race 4, $3.40), Quiet Business (Race 6, $12.80) and Sentence (Race 7, $3.80).
“It was a real good day,” Hernandez said. “We rode the right horses in the right spots and it clearly proved to work out well.”
Hernandez expressed excitement in riding highly regarded 2-year-old McCraken in next Saturday’s $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club (GII).
“McCraken I’m really looking forward to riding, so we’ll see how it goes,” Hernandez said. “He got a little bit anxious before his last race like most 2-year-olds do, but we’re excited and hope he runs another big one next Saturday. We just have to hope that the horses run the way they are.”
THANKSGIVING WEEKEND STAKES RACES BEGINGING TO TAKE SHAPE – The fields for Churchill Downs stakes races on Thanksgiving weekend are beginning to take shape. The following are possible starters according to Churchill Downs stakes coordinator Dan Bork:
- $200,000 Falls City Handicap (GII), a 1 1/8-mile event for fillies and mares on Thursday, Nov. 24: Alotta Skirt, Birdatthewire, Crooked Stick, Include Betty, No Fault Of Mine, Romantic Vision, Streamline, Sweetgrass, and Walkabout.
- $100,000 River City Handicap (GIII), a 1 1/8-mile turf race for 3-year-olds and up on Thursday, Nov. 24: Allied Air Raid, Are You Kidding Me, Behesht (FR), Bullards Alley, Coco Mon, Dac, Dubai Sky, Dujac, Granny’s Kitten, One Go All Go, Pleuven (FR), Taghleeb, Thatcher Street and The Pizza Man.
- $500,000 Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (GI), 1 1/8-mile event for 3-year-olds and up on Friday, Nov. 25: Bird Song, Breaking Lucky, Gun Runner, Hawaakom, Hoppertunity, Noble Bird, Prayer For Relief, Scuba and Shaman Ghost.
- $200,000 Mrs. Revere (GII), a 1 1/16-mile turf event for 3-year-old fillies on Friday, Nov. 25: Caren, Celestial Insight, Crooked Stick, Fitpitcher, Hawksmoor (IRE), Linda, Mo Knows, Mom’s On Strike, Nobody’s Fault, Quidura (GB), Strive and Sweet Tapper.
- $80,000-added Dream Supreme Overnight Stakes, a six-furlong sprint for fillies and mares on Friday, Nov. 25: Athena, Finley’sluckycharm, I’m a Looker, Moiety and Super Saks.
- $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club (GII), a 1 1/16-mile event for 2-year-olds on Saturday, Nov. 26: Han Sense, Just Move On, McCraken, Romeo O Romeo, Silent Decree, Warrior’s Club and Wild Shot.
- $200,000 Golden Rod (GII), a 1 1/16-mile event for 2-year-old fillies on Saturday, Nov. 26: Dream Dancing, Farrell, Fun, Funny Holiday, Lovely Bernadette, My Sweet Stella and Valadorna.