There is a lot to like about McCraken. He impressed when he looped his field from well off the pace to win the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last fall and complete a 3-for-3 juvenile campaign. And he caught the eye again Saturday with a successful 3-year-old bow in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs.
What makes the McCraken package even more intriguing is he is trained by Ian Wilkes, who has a long history of using prep races to develop horses and bring them to peak for their primary goals. In other words, there is every reason to believe that the McCraken who gets to the Kentucky Derby will be a different, better colt than the one who has so far beaten every horse in his path.
This is all good. I have had and continue to have considerable respect for McCraken. But I do think some perspective here might be healthy.
While there is every reason to believe McCraken's career trajectory will head nowhere but up -- for reasons, it should be noted, that are based in no small part on Wilkes being his trainer -- it is far from a certainty that this is the way things will actually pan out.
More to the point, McCraken won the Davis by 1 1/2 lengths over a late-charging Tapwrit, whose previous claim to fame was holding on to win the off-the-turf Pulpit stakes at Gulfstream in early December (off a maiden win at Gulfstream Park West, no less) by one length after holding a five-length lead at the eighth pole. Tapwrit earned a 78 Beyer Figure in the Pulpit, a career-best.
Third in the Davis, beaten 2 1/2 lengths after setting a strong early pace, was State of Honor. State of Honor was coming off a near-miss to Sonic Mule in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes, in which he earned an 83 Beyer, a career-best by nine points.
And fourth in the Davis, beaten 3 1/2 lengths, was Wild Shot, who was coming off the same 2 1/2-month freshening as McCraken after finishing second in the Kentucky Jockey Club.
Beyond McCraken dispatching a suspect group in the Davis, there is the matter/red herring of him setting a track record. In truth, if there ever was an example of how track records are much less about actual horses and almost always about the speed of a racing surface, this was it.
I understand that we are talking here about new 3-year-olds who, by definition, can improve dramatically overnight. But Tapwrit, State of Honor, and Wild Shot all coming close to running in track-record time severely undercuts the impact of McCraken's track record.
While not impossible, it is highly implausible that the second, third, and fourth finishers in the Davis all improved so sharply as to suddenly become track-record threats. No. Track speed, and not a special performance from McCraken, was the principal cause for the final time of the Davis.
Look, I like McCraken a lot; he has been high on my Watchmaker Watch list for months. But much of the deal with McCraken is to come, even more so than with the usual Derby hopeful. It has become all about what McCraken might be, instead of what he actually is. And what McCraken is, right now, is a colt whose perceived potential has gotten way, way out in front of his actual performance.
That said, it will be fun to see if he's able to close that gap.
Quick Saturday notes
** The best horse to run on Saturday, without question, was Sharp Azteca, dominant winner of the Gulfstream Park Handicap. "Monster" is the highest accolade I assign to horses and Sharp Azteca is coming very close to monster territory for me. His Pat Day Mile last spring was monstrous. So was his narrowly beaten second in the Malibu when he went up to press through a second quarter in a ridiculous 21.64. His effort Saturday was huge, not monstrous, but it didn't have to be because he was just that much better than that field. If Sharp Azteca returns from Dubai well, I can't think of a horse I'd rather have in the Met Mile than him.
** Trainer Chad Brown seems to have more Grade 1 turf horses than there are Grade 1 turf races with the latest being Almanaar, winner of Saturday's Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap. Divisidero finished a tired sixth as the favorite in the Gulfstream Park Turf and as one who has always been a fan, it pains me to say I fear the clock has struck midnight for him.
** Saturday's opener at Aqueduct was just a nondescript New York-bred maiden race, but it raised what I feel is an interesting topic. Bartleby popped the gate an instant before the actual start, and then tracked the pace from the outside before finishing a tired and soundly beaten fourth in the field of six.
Right after the race, an inquiry was posted, and the stewards eventually disqualified Bartleby from fourth and placed him sixth for having an unfair start, and declared him a non-starter for wagering purposes.
I won't disagree with the stewards' ruling here. They adhered strictly to the rules. Fine.
Nevertheless, I do think this was one instance when some common sense could have been used instead of a strict interpretation of the rules. Bartleby's head start was literally a split second, enough for the eye to catch, but certainly not enough to impact the running or the outcome of the race.
How can I say that? Well, Bartleby finished 8 3/4 lengths in front of the fifth-place finisher, and 17 1/4 lengths ahead of the sixth and last-place finisher. Although it's true Bartleby's tiny head start violated a rule, I don't think you could find anyone on the planet who would believe it cost the fifth-place or sixth-place finisher a larger piece of the purse.
Of course, asking stewards to employ discretion and common sense when it comes to the application of racing rules is akin to opening Pandora's box. I get that. But strict application of racing rules without a dose of common sense isn't so great, either.