I watched my first Kentucky Derby (G1) 30 years ago — yes, I’m still a pup to some — and it didn’t take many years for me to realize that there’s often a sense of karma surrounding the race. Or at least the kind of karma that helps propel certain folks or horses into the Derby winner’s circle.
Just in the last three decades, we’ve witnessed beloved long-time turf patrons finally break through to claim the sport’s biggest prize; Frances Genter (1990), Paul Mellon (1993), Bill Young (1996), and Phipps & Janney (2013) are notable examples. Jockey Pat Day, the king of Churchill Downs, finally won his first (and only) Derby in 1992 after so many close calls aboard several hot prospects. I even considered the wins by sons of superstar stallions Alydar (1991) and Mr. Prospector (2000), both of whom died the year before, karma related to some degree.
It’s easy to attribute some of the success to positive karma after the Derby is over. But being prescient, as anyone who knows my record at picking Derby winners, is something I struggle with.
Who might have the right Derby karma in 2017? For me, one candidate would be Janis Whitham, the owner-breeder of Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) winner McCraken.
Whitham has been in the racing spotlight off and on since the late 1980s when she and her late husband, Frank, campaigned two-time champion older mare Bayakoa. A dual Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) winner and Hall of Fame inductee, Bayakoa never reared a stakes winner. However, daughters of the legendary mare produced Affluent, a multiple Grade 1 winner on both dirt and turf; and Fort Larned, who captured the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) and two other Grade 1s.
In a nutshell, Whitham has tasted success at some of the highest levels in the sport. What she hasn’t had to this point is a serious Derby contender.
That might all change with McCraken, a son of Ghostzapper who heads into his sophomore season undefeated from three starts. All three wins have come at Churchill Downs, and his performance in the 1 1/16-mile Kentucky Jockey Club suggested he will continue to excel at longer distances.
Stabled at Palm Meadows in south Florida, McCraken is trained by Ian Wilkes. Formerly an assistant to Carl Nafzger, Wilkes was closely affiliated with his old boss’ two Derby winners, Unbridled (1990) and Street Sense (2007). The latter won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) at Churchill and kick-started his three-year-old campaign at Tampa Bay Downs, which is what McCraken has planned in the Sam F. Davis (G3) on February 11. Coincidentally, McCraken captured the $83,000 Street Sense before taking the KJC.
McCraken closed as the 12-1 fourth individual choice in Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager (KDFW), betting on which closed 24 hours after his KJC victory. He was made the 10-1 third individual choice on the morning line of KDFW Pool 2, which begins Friday at noon (EST) and ends early Sunday evening.
With none of the top three individual entries from Pool 1 having run this year and with no preps scheduled this week, it would make little sense to accept McCraken at less than his Pool 1 odds of 12-1 in Pool 2. I’ll be monitoring the betting throughout the weekend and, if the price is right, will plop a few dollars on a colt who, in my estimation, shows signs of positive Derby karma.