02/11/2017 6:31PM

McCraken delivers as favorite in Sam Davis

Tom Keyser
McCraken improves to 4 for 4 by winning the Sam Davis under Brian Hernandez Jr. by 1 1/2 lengths in track-record time.

OLDSMAR, Fla. – McCraken appears to be every bit as good as advertised. As the late NFL coach Dennis Green might say, he is who we thought he was.

McCraken used his come-from-behind style to win the Grade 3, $200,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes by 1 1/2 lengths over Tapwrit at Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday, confirming his status as a top-tier Kentucky Derby prospect and keeping his record perfect with four wins in as many starts. McCraken set a track record for 1 1/16 miles at 1:42.45, breaking the mark of 1:42.82 set by Destin in winning the Tampa Bay Derby last year.

With Brian Hernandez Jr. aboard, McCraken ($5) settled into seventh place early as State of Honor, breaking from the inside post, carved out fractions of 23.63 seconds for the opening quarter-mile and 47.15 for the half-mile, with Wild Shot and Tapwrit close behind. Approaching the far turn, McCraken began moving powerfully on the outside and steadily advanced four wide around the turn. He was third at the head of the lane but quickly surged clear. 

“Right before we turned for home, he got to those horses so quickly, and I said, ‘Okay, I’m good from here,’ because I hadn’t even asked him for run and he started picking off horses one by one,” Hernandez said. “Once we turned for home, he switched over to his left lead like a true professional, and off he went.”

In a change this year, the Sam F. Davis Stakes offers Kentucky Derby qualifying points to its top four finishers on a 10-4-2-1 basis. Tapwrit, trained by Todd Pletcher, finished one length ahead of third-place State of Honor, who was one length better than Wild Shot. Rounding out the field of 3-year-olds were Fact Finding, No Dozing, Six Gun Salute, Chance of Luck, and King and His Court.

McCraken, a son of Ghostzapper, is a homebred for Whitham Thoroughbreds LLC. He made his first three starts at Churchill Downs last year, scoring a 2 1/2-length victory in a maiden special weight race, a 3 3/4-length win in the $83,470 Street Sense Stakes, and a 1 1/4-length victory in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. He has earned $310,848.

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

“From [ages] 2 to 3, that’s always in the back of your mind, ‘Is he back as good?’ ” winning trainer Ian Wilkes said. “But he’s got so much more improvement yet. He’s good. He’s an impressive horse.”

Wilkes said he hadn’t picked out a next race for McCraken, but he will strongly consider bringing him back here for the biggest race of the meet, the Grade 2, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby on March 11.

Tapwrit was a $1.2 million purchase as a yearling at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale in 2015 for Bridlewood Farm, Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, and Robert LaPenta. He won his maiden in his second start at Gulfstream Park West in November and then took the $75,000 Pulpit Stakes in the slop at Gulfstream Park in December to cap his juvenile season.

“It was a great effort,” jockey Jose Ortiz said. “I got into a little bit of trouble at the quarter pole, trying to get out, but as soon as I put him in the clear, he gave me a great run.”

Julien Leparoux, who rode State of Honor, said he was pleased with his horse’s effort. State of Honor entered the race off a second-place finish, beaten a head by Sonic Mule, in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 7

“He ran a good race,” Leparoux said. “From the 1 hole, I kind of had to send him a little bit, and he relaxed good for me on the lead. He was trying hard. He ran a big race in his first try at two turns.”