04/06/2017 12:06PM

McCraken takes next step in Blue Grass

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Keeneland / Coady Photography
McCraken makes only his second start of the year in the Blue Grass Stakes, his final prep for the Kentucky Derby.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – There’s only one way for the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the downgrading of the Blue Grass Stakes to die down, and that’s for the 2017 edition of the Keeneland spring showcase to ultimately prove itself worthy of being a Grade 1 again.

Thankfully for Keeneland proponents, some of the most promising 3-year-olds in the land will take part Saturday in the 93rd running of the Grade 2, $1 million Blue Grass. McCraken, Tapwrit, Practical Joke, and J Boys Echo are among a field of seven in what many are calling the deepest prep race on the road to the 2017 Kentucky Derby.

“It’s a very tough race and one that we’ve all got to prove ourselves in,” said Chad Brown, the trainer of Practical Joke. “We’ve got a big, strong, long-striding colt, but you could probably say that about most of the others in this race.”

McCraken, who closed as the lukewarm favorite in the fourth and last Kentucky Derby Future Wager pool last weekend, is the 7-5 morning-line favorite in the 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass. Bred and owned by Whitham Thoroughbreds, the stretch-running colt will put an unbeaten record on the line when he breaks from post 2 under Brian Hernandez Jr.

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Trainer Ian Wilkes has been forthcoming about the minor problem that kept him from running McCraken in the March 11 Tampa Bay Derby, a race won easily by Tapwrit. Four weeks before that, McCraken defeated Tapwrit by 1 1/2 lengths in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa in his only start as a 3-year-old.

“He’s fine,” said Wilkes. “It was a slight ankle strain. I missed one work with him. We could have run him back at Tampa, but why? He’s been training very well.

“Winning [the Blue Grass] is not the object of the game. The Derby is. This isn’t a situation where you want to win at all costs, although obviously we want to see a good effort. We think we have him as ready as we want him.”

Tapwrit, one of a half-dozen or so Derby hopefuls from the powerhouse Todd Pletcher stable, has shown steady improvement since blinkers were added following a poor debut. Last year, Pletcher won the Tampa Bay Derby with Destin, like Tapwrit a gray colt, who went without another prep race before finishing sixth in the Kentucky Derby.

“We’re looking at this like we’re continuing to build,” said Pletcher. “We kicked around the idea of training up to the Derby, but we felt like in his case, it was going to be too long, and he came out of the last race feeling so well, so full of himself, that we felt like he’d benefit from another race.”

J Boys Echo, the winner of the Gotham Stakes in his last start, represents the stable of Dale Romans, who has won two of the last five runnings of the Blue Grass with Dullahan (2012) and Brody’s Cause (2016).

Among the longer-priced Blue Grass starters, maybe Wild Shot stands the best chance at a stunner. The Calumet Farm colt was fourth in the Sam F. Davis and third in the Tampa Bay Derby. At last fall’s Keeneland meet, Wild Shot ran third behind Classic Empire in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity.

“I thought we would make our stand here, where he ran his best race,” said trainer Rusty Arnold.

It’s Your Nickel and Irap round out the Blue Grass lineup.

Strike the Gold (1991) was the last horse to win both the Blue Grass and the Derby, while Street Sense, second in the 2007 Blue Grass, is the only Derby winner in the last 20 years to exit this race. Those statistics were among the reasons the Blue Grass was downgraded in December.

The Blue Grass is worth 170 qualifying points for the May 6 Kentucky Derby, with 100 points to the winner. It goes as the 10th of 11 Saturday races. First post is 1:05 p.m. Eastern, with the Blue Grass going at 6:17. The race will be shown live on a two-hour broadcast on the NBC Sports Network (5:30-7:30), along with the Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby.

The Blue Grass is the last of four straight graded stakes on the biggest day of the 15-day spring meet. The others are the Grade 3 Commonwealth (race 6), Grade 2 Shakertown (race 7), Grade 1 Madison (race 8), and Grade 1 Ashland (race 9).

The weather forecast for Saturday calls for mostly sunny skies and a high of 63.

KEY CONTENDERS

McCraken, by Ghostzapper

Last 3 Beyers: 95-86-85

◗ All four of his wins have come from off the pace and by open lengths.

Tapwrit, by Tapit

Last 3 Beyers: 96-93-85

◗ His 4 1/2-length triumph at Tampa was among the strongest of all the Derby preps so far.

Practical Joke, by Into Mischief

Last 3 Beyers: 88-90-88

◗ Two-time Grade 1 winner was a distant second to Gunnevera in the Fountain of Youth in his latest.

J Boys Echo, by Mineshaft

Last 3 Beyers: 102-84-70

◗ His 3 1/2-length Gotham victory was by far his best effort.