12/09/2016 3:36PM

Road to the 2017 Kentucky Derby: Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes analysis

Coady Photography
McCraken, with Brian Hernandez Jr. up, wins the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs.

Grade 2, $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, 1 1/16 miles, Churchill Downs, Nov. 28, 2016
(10 Derby qualifying points for a win, 4 for second, 2 for third, 1 for fourth)

Winner: McCraken, by Ghostzapper
Trainer: Ian Wilkes
Jockey: Brian Hernandez Jr.
Owner: Whitham Thoroughbreds LLC
Beyer Speed Figure: 86

McCRAKEN completed a promising, late-year campaign by winning his third race without a defeat, all at Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby is held. He went from an unstarted maiden in early October to a top Derby prospect in less than two months.

McCraken reunites the same owner, trainer, and jockey who teamed to win the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic with Fort Larned. It is vitally important to remember that Wilkes’s mentor is Carl Nafzger, a two-time Derby winner and one of the very best I have ever seen at pointing a horse to a target and building up to a peak performance when it counts most. Nafzger did it with the likes of Street Sense and Unbridled, and Wilkes – Unbridled’s exercise rider and Nafzger’s assistant with Street Sense – did it with Fort Larned. This colt is in very capable hands for his Derby bid.

In this race, McCraken was taken in hand early and was toward the rear of the pack, three paths wide, around the first turn. He raced wide down the backstretch and into the far turn, made a bold bid three to four paths wide on the far turn while knifing between rivals, was fanned four paths wide into the lane, continued his elongated rally through the lane while appearing to want drift in a bit but reeled in WILD SHOT and won drawing away while very willing as Hernandez didn’t need to urge him late.

Wild Shot, who was second, broke best, and led into the first turn before yielding to the onrushing UNCONTESTED. Wild Shot was under restraint to sit second down the backstretch, gradually cut into Uncontested’s lead on the turn, got past Uncontested a furlong out, but was immediately tackled by McCraken. Wild Shot couldn’t hold off the winner but was well clear of everyone else. As I noted after he finished third in the Breeders’ Futurity, this may be the outer limit of his range, as he’s by Trappe Shot, but he obviously has quality.

WARRIOR’S CLUB, who was third, was restless in the gate before the start and bobbled slightly leaving there, took up a stalking position in fourth while three paths wide on the first turn, was in the three path outside Uncontested and Wild Shot on the far turn, came under a ride five-sixteenths out, kept to his task, and got the best of a tired Uncontested in the last jump.

Uncontested, who was fourth, used his speed to get over from the far outside post and take the lead around the first turn while setting a sharp pace. He led into the far turn with Wild Shot just to his outside, fended off Wild Shot in upper stretch, began to weaken a furlong out, and tired late. This was a big ask, as he only had one prior start, against maidens, going 6 1/2 furlongs. He’s worth following.

SILENT DECREE, who finished fifth, stumbled at the start and was immediately bumped by stablemate JUST MOVE ON, then was a bit rank, causing him to fall back to 11th in the early going. He appeared to resent the spray of dirt and was taken wide while rounding the first turn, rallied four paths wide on the far turn, was fanned five paths into the lane, and made a decent late run.

SHAREHOLDER VALUE, who was sixth, broke inward at the start, then was a bit rank into the first turn while well back. He was right with McCraken with three furlongs to go, was out-footed at that point, raced in the three path on the far turn, and passed a few rivals while never making an impact.

Just Move On, who was seventh, bumped with Silent Decree a stride out of the gate, wound up in the second flight of horses just behind the leaders into the first turn while between rivals, entered the far turn three paths wide, and then was deftly guided toward the rail midway on the turn, but tired through the final furlong.

PERRO ROJO, who was eighth, had no early speed and trailed into the first turn, was well back to the far turn, was angled four paths wide into the lane, but never was a factor.

JOCKER JUSTICE, who was ninth, was three paths wide in the second flight of horses into the first turn, steadily advanced down the backstretch while always wide, was four paths wide on the far turn while trying to challenge the leaders, then came under a ride five-sixteenths out, and retreated.

HAN SENSE, who was 10th, broke a half-step slow, saved ground into the first turn while in traffic, hugged the rail to the far turn, tried to advance inside, but ran into traffic midway on the turn, then got through inside but made no impact.

TOTAL TAP, who was 11th, saved ground into the first turn while just behind the leaders, followed Uncontested down the backstretch and into the far turn, but could not keep up when asked and then readily yielded through the lane. He won on grass first time out, so that may be his career choice.

ROMEO O ROMEO, who finished last of 12, took up an ideal stalking position in third around the first turn, began to lose position near the half-mile pole, and was last by the time the field turned into the lane. This was his first try on dirt after three races on synthetic and one on turf.