LAS VEGAS--In a muddled year for 3-year-olds, maybe the Kentucky Derby favorite is right under our noses.
We may find out this weekend if it is McCraken.
The undefeated colt trained by Ian Wilkes and ridden by Brian Hernández Jr. is the 7-to-5 morning-line favorite for the $1 million Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes, the most competitive of the three 1 1/8-mile Derby preps Saturday. McCraken is one of three winners of Derby points races to be drawn into the Blue Grass. Tapwrit (5-to-2) from the Tampa Bay Derby and J Boys Echo (4-to-1) from the Gotham are the others.
McCraken is also the 6-to-1 favorite at the Wynn Las Vegas this week in Derby future betting, just ahead of Tapwrit and last week’s Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming, both at 7-to-1. McCraken was also the 5-to-1 favorite in Churchill Downs’ final Kentucky Derby Future Wager that closed Sunday.
In his last race eight weeks ago McCraken closed to beat Tapwrit and State Of Honor by 1½ lengths in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. Tapwrit and State Of Honor then took advantage of McCraken’s absence last month to finish one-two in the Tampa Bay Derby.
“The form has held up pretty good out of that race,” Wilkes said of the Sam F. Davis. “The horses have come back and been consistent. You have to be pleased to see that.”
McCraken was held out of the Tampa Bay Derby because of an ankle strain that Wilkes called “very minor.”
“The horse had taken care of me; it was my turn to take care of him,” Wilkes said. “I couldn’t get the right work I wanted for the Tampa Bay Derby. So I just felt it was in the best interest to skip that.”
McCraken was sired by Ghostzapper, the 2004 Eclipse Award-winning Horse of the Year. So was Iliad, the 7-to-2 favorite to beat 12 rivals in Saturday’s Grade 1 $1 million Santa Anita Derby in California.
“It really takes any kind of fluke label off either one of those two,” Iliad’s trainer Doug O’Neill said. “Ghostzapper was such a tremendous racehorse himself. His offspring have done pretty darn well. It puts class into both of these individuals.”
In a wide-open race at Aqueduct in New York, trainer Todd Pletcher sends stakes debutant Battalion Runner in as a 2-to-1 morning-line favorite against seven others in the Grade 2 $750,000 Wood Memorial. Gotham runner-up Cloud Computing (5-to-2) and Holy Bull winner Irish War Cry (7-to-2) are also in the field. Irish War Cry is coming off a seventh-place disappointment as the favorite in last month’s Fountain of Youth.
Johnny Avello, executive director of the race and sports books at Wynn, said that even after Saturday it may be too soon to declare a definite Derby favorite if it is not a horse that has already found some level of prominence in previous preps.
“If it’s going to be an outsider, I’m going to say this horse had a good race that day, and that’s it,” Avello said. “Does not having an obvious Derby favorite change business on the future book? Yes, because there are more opportunities. If you don’t have a clear-cut favorite at 4-to-1, it opens it up for a lot more business. And it opens up business on race day for exotics. To me this year you can put telephone numbers together that win if you can connect the dots.”
Each winner Saturday will be guaranteed a spot in next month’s Kentucky Derby with the second-place finishers also likely to have enough points to earn a berth. Post time for the Wood is 5:52 p.m. EDT followed by the Blue Grass at 6:17 p.m. and the Santa Anita Derby at 6:30 p.m.
A two-horse race for the richest Cup
Keeping up with the Joneses of horse racing has gotten expensive. Really expensive. Especially when it comes to the world’s richest horse race – whatever it may be.
For the moment it is the brand new Pegasus World Cup Invitational, which had a record purse of $12 million when Arrogate won its first running in January at Gulfstream Park in Florida.
Not to be outdone, Sheikh Mohammed of the United Arab Emirates promised that his $10 million Dubai World Cup, which had been the world’s richest, would reclaim that title, presumably by next March.
“I always want one step ahead,” His Highness told CNN right after, yes, Arrogate won the latest edition of the Dubai race two Saturdays ago. “I’m just meeting hard with my people to be number one. Definitely we’ll do that.”
Eight days later Gulfstream impresario Frank Stronach committed $4 million of his company’s money to make next winter’s renewal of the Pegasus worth $16 million.
“In 2018 we will bring an even bigger, more modern and unforgettable entertainment experience to a global audience,” Stronach’s daughter, Belinda, declared in a formal news release on Wednesday.
The bigger Pegasus purse includes a guarantee of $650,000 for each participant who must ante up $1 million. The new minimum return is designed to lure a full, 12-horse field that may or may not include a 5-year-old Arrogate.
Tag, Sheikh Mo. You are it. You and Stronach now find yourself in a battle of “mine is bigger than yours.”
They are not alone. Australia has jumped into the contest with a race modeled after the Pegasus – a six-furlong turf sprint in October to be called the Everest. Its $7.5 million purse may seem like comparatively small potatoes – or La Bonnottes. Nevertheless, the Everest will rank as the third richest race in the world – and the richest on turf.
All this begs the question: has racing gone mad?
“The good part of what Dubai and Mr. Stronach are doing is giving a reason to keep 3-year-olds in training after their 3-year-old year,” said Bob Kulina, president of Monmouth Park racetrack in New Jersey. “In the big picture it’s positive for the game.”
Kulina knows first hand about pumping up the purse of a single race. He authorized $750,000 to be added to the 2015 Haskell Invitational, normally worth $1 million. It was the sweetener that convinced owner Ahmed Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert to send newly minted Triple Crown winner American Pharoah to the Jersey Shore that summer.
The result was a packed house that bet more than $20 million on the day’s races – 13 percent better than the old record for a Haskell day. Oh, yes. American Pharoah won.
“If you want to play the big stage you have to pay the players,” Kulina said. “If you want the top players you have to make an effort to recruit them.”
Kulina had to decide two summers ago whether to keep the Haskell at $1 million – and maybe not attract the biggest name in American racing in 38 years. That extra $750,000 could have been spread around to the purses of smaller races like the ones for claimers that Kulina admitted are “the lifeline of our industry.”
“For the small guy, the owner or trainer who is struggling, all you do with him is try to explain your vision,” Kulina said. “If you try to grow your brand or your sport, it takes the likes of Arrogate or American Pharoah to try and create new fans that in the long run will benefit the guys with cheaper horses. You’re not going to create fans through claiming horses.”
Ultimately, Kulina said, it is not so much a battle between Stronach and the Sheikh as it is between keeping horses on the racetrack and sending them to the breeding shed early for big stallion fees. He likened it to a battle between the Yankees and the Dodgers for a free agent.
“If you consider a star horse has a stud fee of $200,000 and is bred to 100 mares, then why would you risk injury?” Kulina asked. “Horses like Arrogate are big business. Is he going to run again for just $700,000 or $1 million? I don’t know. We do know he’ll come back for the ($5 million Breeders’ Cup) Classic. We’ve got to thank Dubai and thank Frank that we get to see Arrogate run again.”