When a top notch array of Kentucky Derby contenders toe the track at Keeneland on April 8 for the Bluegrass Stakes, of course there will be a lot on the line. The million dollar race carries a lot of importance for many reasons besides just the healthy purse. Acting as a springboard, this mile and an eighth dash on the Lexington dirt could make for a big future. Or at least those are the hopes of one of the sport’s best conditioners.
Ian Wilkes is one of the top Thoroughbred trainers east of the Mississippi. With perhaps the top three-year old male in the nation currently residing in his barn, the Australian-born Wilkes has a lot to be excited about right now. McCraken is a fleet-footed phenom that boasts an unbeaten record. This son of Ghostzapper has four impressive wins in as many career starts with his next go in the starting gates scheduled for the April 8 Bluegrass.
“I am very pleased with where he is at right now,” says Wilkes who began training in the USA as an assistant to Carl Nafzger in 1990. “He is doing very well and seems to like the track here at Keeneland. He has an amazing turn of foot and is something special.”
The Bluegrass Stakes should be the sternest test to date for McCraken. Having set a stakes record in the Sam Davis at Tampa Downs (1:42.45 mile and a sixteenth) on February 11 in his only start as a three-year old, this Janis Whitham owned colt will be put to task as he stretches out. Fellow top contenders Practical Joke and J Boys Echo are just some of a star-studded field looking for glory. A minor foot issue cancelled him from the Tampa Derby and that adds to the challenges. Healthy now and ready to take on some big hitters with a cool mill on the line, this run is important for sure. With the first Saturday in May only four weeks in the future and a run at immortality on the line, the stakes are even higher. Wilkes, however, is not thinking about the competition, he is only concerned about one athlete.
“We are not worried about who else is going to be there,” says Wilkes. “I just want to get a good race into my horse and that is my only concern. With a race as prestigious as the Bluegrass you expect good horses to be there. It’s always nice to win a race of this caliber because of its history and all it offers, but we can’t be consumed with who else is running or if we win or not.”
Having enjoyed success as a trainer in his native land, as an assistant to the legendary Nafzger, and as the lead dog with horses like Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Fort Larned, this mate understands the game. Wilkes is no doubt all in for the Bluegrass, but at the same time he has eyes on the greener grass the future may hold.
“Our goal is the Kentucky Derby and being ready for the first Saturday in May is the main objective”, proclaims the New South Wales native. “The main thing is just keep him headed in the right direction and not put too much pressure on him.”