McCraken 'most likely' will next run in Tampa Bay Derby

OLDSMAR, Fla. - McCraken came out of his record-breaking victory in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in good order and was already resting in his stall late Saturday night at the Palm Meadows training center after being vanned across the Florida peninsula back to the East Coast, according to the colt's trainer, Ian Wilkes.

Wilkes, speaking early Sunday before leaving the Tampa area, said he was elated with how McCraken performed Saturday in his 3-year-old debut. Ridden by Brian Hernandez Jr., McCraken posted a convincing triumph, keeping the Ghostzapper colt unbeaten in four starts and leaving no doubt that he is one of the top contenders with less than 12 weeks remaining to the 143rd Kentucky Derby on May 6 at Churchill Downs. The winning time for 1 1/16 miles over a fast track came in track-record time of 1:42.45.

"He's good," Wilkes said. "He got through a lot of things yesterday. He was giving six pounds to most of the other horses. He was racing on a different surface. He was going from 2 to 3. You always want to see them run the way he did."

Bred and owned by Janis Whitham, McCraken rallied from about six lengths off the pace to prevail by 1 1/2 lengths over Tapwrit in a field of nine 3-year-olds.

Wilkes reaffirmed Sunday that McCraken "most likely" will run back here in the Grade 2, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby, the track's marquee event at the annual Festival Day of Racing on March 11. The 1 1/16-mile Tampa Bay Derby comes four weeks after the Sam Davis. Looking four weeks ahead, there's the April 8 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, which Wilkes has indicated could serve as the colt's final prep four weeks before the Derby.

"The timing is right," he said. "That's the important thing. I've got to stay in rhythm with him. You can't totally commit because you always need room to change if you want to adjust something, and you can't be locked in. But yes, if everything goes right, we'll plan to come back here."

Wilkes said McCraken would return to training at Palm Meadows "in a few days. I'll get back there and take a good look at him, maybe take an extra day if I want. We'll see how it goes."

In winning the Sam Davis, McCraken earned 10 points toward eligibility to the Kentucky Derby; he now has 20 points. The Tampa Bay Derby is worth 50 points to the winner and the 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass is worth 100.

The easy-going Wilkes, a native of Australia, is a favorite among his fellow horsemen and fans, and he has been inundated with congratulations and well-wishes as he continues down the Derby trail. Wilkes was a key component in Derby victories with Unbridled (1990) and Street Sense (2007) for his former boss and longtime business associate, Hall of Fame trainer Carl Nafzger. Wilkes has not yet had a Derby starter of his own.

"I'd be lying if told you I wasn't happy this morning," he said. "It's a relief. It's great. It's fun. I'm just enjoying it, mate."

Meanwhile, trainer Todd Pletcher said early Sunday via text message that the Tampa Bay Derby also could be next for Tapwrit, who closed steadily to finish second. He added that his other Sam Davis starter, Fact Finding, will be regrouped, with no particular next race in mind, after tiring to finish fifth when being defeated for the first time in four career starts.

In fallout from another race on the Festival Preview card Saturday, the Grade 3 Endeavour Stakes, Pletcher said Isabella Sings could run back on the March 11 Festival undercard in the Grade 2, $200,000 Hillsborough at 1 1/8 miles on turf. The Siena Farm homebred dominated the Endeavour with her usual front-running style.

"I need to talk to the owners, but I think we'll send her back there," he said.

The March 11 schedule of five stakes doesn't match up precisely with the races held here Saturday. The Grade 3 Florida Oaks for 3-year-old fillies is on turf -- as opposed to the Suncoast, won Saturday by Tapa Tapa Tapa over Elate on the dirt -- and there also is no turf race corresponding to the Tampa Bay Stakes, won by Inspector Lynley.

The Sam Davis anchored a 12-race card that attracted $9,449,680 in all-sources handle, according to Equibase personnel. The all-time Tampa handle record is $12.25 million from the 2016 Tampa Bay Derby card.