SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- They are cream of the crop, a small stable of runners hand-picked for promise and purpose. Just 13 horses tucked back in a cozy barn in the middle of Saratoga's Clare Court, but they hit at this elite oval with lethal accuracy and there's a reason they wind up in the winner's circle. That reason is Ian Wilkes.
Wilkes, 44, issues a modest description of the work he does at Saratoga Race Course. "I just try and get lucky," he says. In reality, the trainer has invested months of careful planning and preparation into his Saratoga season, choosing the best runners from his larger Kentucky-based set. It's a selection process that favors precocious maidens and hard-knocking allowance starters, with a place or two for the best stakes horses thrown in. In his third year of operation at the Spa, Wilkes is in the fortunate position to have brought all three.
Among them, the Travers-bound Warrior's Reward, runner-up in the Aug. 1 Jim Dandy (gr. II), Miss Isella, second-place finisher in today's Go For Wand (gr. I), and Capt. Candyman Can, who will tackle the Amsterdam Stakes (gr. II) tomorrow.
"I've got some nice horses," Wilkes said Sunday morning after training hours. "You have to be smart to succeed up here, but I've had the luxury of picking out some that I think will fit. I should be able to come here and do okay, unless my horses just aren't good enough."
Wilkes ought to know about picking horses – that's what got him into the game. Growing up on a dairy farm in his native Australia, he honed his handicapping skills while following the races.
"They always had the form in the newspaper, so I'd pick horses I liked," he said. "I loved racing, I just loved it. I would go to the races and sell race books for half a day, and have some money to gamble with."
Abandoning school in favor of the track, the young handicapper wrote letters to 12 different horsemen. He wanted a job. Four of them replied, and he launched his career with trainer Paul Sutherland. But it was a position with champion Colin Hayes, one of Australia's best trainers, that gave him the chance to come to America.
"That's probably the biggest change in my life," he said. "I worked for Collin Hayes and met someone that worked for Carl [Nafzger], and I said, 'Oh, yeah, I want to go to America!'"
Wilkes first appeared on the American racing scene in 1990 when he worked as the exercise rider for Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled, but by 2006 he was a predominant force in the Nafzger-led campaign of Derby winner Street Sense. In January of that year, Nafzger turned over the day-to-day operation of his stable to Wilkes and his wife Tracy, who exercises many of Wilkes' top runners. She was the exercise rider for Street Sense that summer, when Wilkes made his first venture to the Spa.
"Starting horses here is a challenge," Wilkes said. "It's a very unique place and it's not easy, it's tough. There's a lot of good horsemen here, good horses, good riders; everything's good. A lot of owners like to win here and you can't blame them, because if you can win at Saratoga you can just about win anywhere in the country."
Wilkes inherited the majority of his owners from Nafzger, but now the horses are his, gearing up for what could be his best season yet.
"I've got some nice horses, and I've got some good owners, that's the important thing," he said. "They've been very loyal in the transition from Carl to me, they're just tremendous owners, giving me the opportunity to do what I love -- develop strong runners."
Keep an Eye on Wilkes' Runners:
Capt. Candyman Can
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse Magazine, The Albany Times Union and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.