11/26/2016 7:24PM

McCraken impresses in Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes

Coady Photography
McCraken and jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. win the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes by 1 1/4 lengths Saturday.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – As soon as McCraken crossed under the wire as the winner of the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, the colt’s owner and breeder, Janis Whitham, began to weep.

Watching with family and friends in the Winner’s Circle Suites on the ground level of Churchill Downs, Whitham surely realized this is the best Kentucky Derby prospect she has had since her husband, Frank, died in a 1993 plane crash.

“Yes, it is emotional,” said Whitham, 84, before making the short walk to the winner’s circle.

Living up to his 4-5 favoritism, McCraken remained undefeated in three career starts by reeling in a gritty Wild Shot for a 1 1/4-length victory Saturday in the 90th running of the Grade 2, $200,000 KJC under the Churchill lights. The colt earned 10 eligibility points toward the 143rd Kentucky Derby next May but, more importantly, stamped himself as a genuine contender.

“This was a good test for him today,” said trainer Ian Wilkes, “and he passed it. We’ve always thought he was a good colt, and he keeps showing us that he is.”

Ridden by Brian Hernandez Jr., McCraken broke cleanly from post 11 in the 1 1/16-mile race, settling into ninth while kept in the clear. Gaining momentum leaving the half-mile pole, he circled the field while picking off rivals, and passing the eighth pole, he only had Wild Shot to beat.

“A horse like this makes it easy,” said Hernandez. “He’s a boy, but he’s growing up, and he’s getting it all together. He was a lot more settled today, and in his last race he hadn’t run in a while, but today he did everything the right way.”

Wild Shot, the 4-1 second choice under Corey Lanerie, was always close to early leader Uncontested, overtaking him easily before settling for second, 3 3/4 lengths ahead of Warrior’s Club. Wild Shot was coming off a third-place finish in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity behind Classic Empire, the eventual winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“I thought he ran great,” said trainer Rusty Arnold. “He might’ve pulled just a little early, but overall it was a big effort. We were just second-best tonight.”

The KJC victory added to a phenomenal closing weekend to the Churchill fall meet for Hernandez and Wilkes. Besides several other wins on their own, they teamed together in the Grade 3 River City with Thatcher Street on Thursday and the Grade 2 Mrs. Revere on Friday.

McCraken, a bay colt by Ghostzapper, finished the 1 1/16-mile distance in 1:44.15 over a fast track. His two prior wins, both at Churchill, came in an Oct. 2 maiden race at six furlongs and the Oct. 30 Street Sense at a one-turn mile.

Wilkes and his wife, Tracey, who is integral to the barn’s success, are leaving for a three-week vacation Tuesday for their native Australia.

“It’s a heck of a way to go out,” said Wilkes.

Carl Nafzger, the Hall of Fame trainer who has been a longtime mentor and business partner to Wilkes, will oversee the stable’s top horses at Palm Meadows in the interim, including McCraken.

McCraken is named for a small town in western Kansas, near where the Whitham family lives. Together, Frank and Janis Whitham raced such all-time greats as Bayakoa and Paseana. Some of their descendants were on hand Saturday for the race.

The $2 exacta (11-3) paid $15.60, the $1 trifecta (11-3-9) returned $52.60, and the 10-cent superfecta (11-3-9-12) was worth $17.98.

The KJC culminated a Stars of Tomorrow program that included its sister race, the Grade 2 Golden Rod, won by Farrell ($23). All 12 Saturday races were for 2-year-olds.

• There were no solo winning tickets sold Saturday in the Single 6. The 21-day fall meet ends Sunday with a 12-race card and a mandatory dispersal of the Single 6 jackpot, which stands at $173,888 and surely will attract a large handle. First post is 1 p.m. Eastern.