06/17/2017 8:52PM

McCraken bounces back with triumph in Matt Winn

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McCraken won the Matt Winn by 2 1/4 lengths over Colonelsdarktemper.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – McCraken is back. The colt rebounded from his eighth-place finish as one of the Kentucky Derby favorites by prevailing in his comeback race, the Grade 3, $100,000 Matt Winn Stakes, the first of five straight graded stakes Saturday night at Churchill Downs.

“It’s always good to win these,” trainer Ian Wilkes said afterward. “When you want to win, when you expect to win, they’re the hardest.”

Sent away the 1-5 favorite in a field of six 3-year-olds, McCraken broke slowest in the 1 1/16-mile race, but was quick to recover under Brian Hernandez Jr., settling into a rhythmic stride in fifth place while spotting the early leader, Aquamarine, about eight lengths entering the backstretch.

In the far turn, McCraken circled rivals, then surged to the lead leaving the quarter-pole before going on to win by 2 1/4 lengths. He paid $2.40 after finishing in 1:42.84 over a fast track. Colonelsdarktemper was second and Society Beau was third.

Approaching the furlong pole, Hernandez gave McCraken a couple of easy right-handed taps of his whip before switching to his left, giving the colt four solid cracks.

“He made the lead pretty easy,” Hernandez said. “He’d been kind of fooling around in the mornings, so I wanted to make sure to keep his attention. I loved the way he performed. I’m very happy.”

Bred and owned by the Whitham family, who were on hand in force from their southwestern Kansas home, McCraken now has won five of seven career starts. He is 4 for 5 at Churchill, with his defeats coming in the Blue Grass at Keeneland, where he was third as the 8-5 favorite, and the May 6 Derby, in which he was the 6-1 fourth choice. The son of Ghostzapper earned $61,380, lifting his career bankroll to $472,228.

Wilkes said before the Matt Winn that if all went well, he would target the July 29 Jim Dandy at Saratoga as the next start for McCraken.

After winning the Feb. 11 Sam Davis to remain unbeaten in four starts, McCraken was a lukewarm early favorite for the Derby, but then Wilkes was forced to bypass the next scheduled race, the March 11 Tampa Bay Derby, when the colt missed some training with a minor ankle ailment.

In the Kentucky Derby, he lost virtually all chance at the start when he suffered a puncture wound to his left hind ankle when broadsided by an opponent. He missed about an extra week of training afterward as Wilkes and his staff nursed the colt back to health.

“It’s really good to get this one behind us,” Wilkes said.

The ownership group is headed by Janis Whitham, who raced such greats as Bayakoa and Paseana with her husband, Frank, prior to his death in 1993.

The $2 exacta (2-3) paid $7.40, the $1 trifecta (2-3-6) returned $15.60, and the 10-cent superfecta (2-3-6-4) was worth $5.86.