04/24/2017 2:06PM

Derby clocker: McCraken's breeze pleases Wilkes

Barbara D. Livingston
McCraken, under Brian Hernandez, works five furlongs and gallops out strongly on Monday at Churchill Downs.


Churchill Downs

Track: Fast

Weather: Clear

Temp.: 55


LOUISVILLE, Ky. – After McCraken suffered his first defeat in five career starts when he finished third as the 8-5 favorite in the Blue Grass Stakes earlier this month, trainer Ian Wilkes was looking for a sign here Monday that McCraken was indeed moving in the right direction in the second and most serious of his three works leading up to the Kentucky Derby.

And Wilkes got exactly what he was looking for, a solid five-eighths move punctuated by an eye-catching gallop-out in company with stablemate McCormick during the special Oaks-Derby training session at Churchill Downs.

McCraken was one of a handful of potential Derby starters to work over a fast track on a crisp, picture-perfect morning. Also working were four members of the Steve Asmussen stable: Hence, Untrapped, Lookin At Lee, and Local Hero, with the last two still on the outside looking in on the Derby points leaderboard, which will determine the field for the race.

McCraken, with regular rider Brian Hernandez Jr. aboard, broke about four lengths behind his stablemate and quickly dropped as much as seven to eight lengths back in the run down the backstretch after McCormick zipped through an opening furlong in 11 seconds and change.

Hernandez wisely allowed McCraken to just settle into his normal stride behind his target, posting fractions of 12.06 seconds, 24.53, and 36.25 while fanning four to five paths wide into the stretch. McCraken turned for home still well behind McCormick but steadily cut into that deficit and finished up nicely without any prodding to complete five-eighths about two lengths behind in 1:00.46.

:: Enjoy news and analysis from DRF? Get handicapping analysis, real-time coverage, special reports, and charts. Unlock access with DRF Plus.

He readily overtook his partner once passing the wire, swooping by while galloping out with terrific energy into and around the turn, completing six furlongs in 1:13.01 and seven furlongs in 1:26.21 before easing up one mile in 1:41.83. He then went on for another quarter-mile before being reined in by the outrider.

“I was very happy with the work,” Wilkes said. “I wanted something for him to run at, to get back into the routine of what he does, and he closed well and galloped out very strong. It’s always important to see a strong gallop-out like that. That’s what I was looking for. “The other horse got a little farther ahead than I wanted, but it didn’t matter to me whether he caught him or not. I told Brian just to let him do his own thing. He’s right on cue, right where I want him at, and this allows me to do what I need to do to plan for his final work next week.”

Wilkes said he felt the Blue Grass helped prepare McCraken both physically and mentally for the Derby.

“He definitely needed the race,” said Wilkes. “I had a show horse, not a racehorse, that day. He was too pretty, not fit enough. He was also too anxious, too much on the bit at the beginning, and he got roughed up a bit, which is good. He needed to face some adversity. But he didn’t quit on me – that’s what I wanted to see.”

McCraken began his work as Hence and Local Hero completed their five-furlong breeze in company in 59.93 following sharp splits of 23.91 and 35.45 to the top of the stretch. The pair finished on even terms, without urging, before galloping out six furlongs in 1:13.16 and pulling up seven-eighths in 1:26.70.

It was a useful move for both horses, with Hence looking none the worse for wear coming off a bullet work the previous week. He continues to move forward off the defining race of his career, a 3 3/4-length triumph in the Grade 3 Sunland Derby four weeks ago.

Untrapped made a very favorable impression while working before dawn, going a solo five-eighths in 24.93, 37.34, 1:01.49, finishing willingly without need of encouragement, and galloping out with great energy. He completed six furlongs in 1:14.57 and pulled up seven furlongs in 1:27.64.

Lookin At Lee was strictly in maintenance mode while returning to breeze just nine days after his third-place finish in the Arkansas Derby. He cruised a half-mile in 51.25.

At Keeneland, Girvin had his scheduled work postponed by trainer Joe Sharp on Monday, although he did jog over the main track while accompanied by a stable pony for the second consecutive day. Sharp said afterward that Girvin would now have his final Derby work Friday at Keeneland.

Gotham Stakes winner J Boys Echo had the stage all to himself Sunday as the only Derby worker at Churchill Downs, where he went five furlongs from the half-mile pole in 1:02.36 with regular exercise rider Tammy Fox aboard.

An average work horse at best all winter at Gulfstream Park, J Boys Echo swapped leads a couple of times approaching the wire while finishing with his ears pinned and while under pressure to complete the move at the mile pole on the clubhouse turn. He galloped out six furlongs in 1:16.27.

– additional reporting by Nicole Russo