By Frank J. Buchman
McCraken is a winner, no matter how one evaluates the magnificent Thoroughbred.
That’s despite the three-year-old bay stallion not winning the 2017 Kentucky Derby.
Owned by Whitham Thoroughbreds LLC, the Leoti farming-banking family of Janis Whitham, McCraken certainly “has lit the board.”
That’s in more ways than one, too. Wire service stories just days prior the big running at Churchill Downs, Louisville, Kentucky, spread the name around the world.
Wednesday before the Saturday, May 6, Run for the Roses, certain odds-makers had McCraken 9:1 odds to win.
Named after the Rush County, Kansas, town of McCracken, but with the “c” intentionally omitted, McCraken came up eighth out of the field of 20.
No money that day, but McCraken collected checks every previous outing. Plus, high likelihood of additional returns from his continuing race calendar.
McCraken, undefeated in his first four races, was forced to miss a major outing in March, due to ankle pain. The Kansas stallion returned in April for third at the Blue Grass Stakes Keeneland Racecourse in Lexington, Kentucky.
That “show” was required for McCraken to qualify for this year’s Kentucky Derby.
After starting in the 15th Derby gate, the three-year-old broke to the middle of the pack. Unfortunately, the runner never had a spurt to get to the front.
It was Always Dreaming, who’d never run a stakes race before April, from the fifth gate pulled away down the stretch to get first. Looking At Lee was second and Battle Of Midway, third.
Always Dreaming shared immediate pre-race odds at 9-2 with Irish War Cry, who finished tenth.
Only the top five came away with purses, Always Dreaming with $1.2 million, Lookin’ At Lee with $400,000 and Battle Of Midway, $200,000. Fourth, Classic Empire, and fifth, Practical Joke, received $100,000 and $60,000, respectively.
Seemingly noteworthy, the Kentucky Derby was McCraken’s longest race, 1¼-miles, with the previous longest run being 1-1/8-miles.
It was also McCraken’s first Grade I or G1 competition. Term used for the highest level Thoroughbred stakes races, G1 is of international importance attracting the best horses and paying largest money.
Whitham Thoroughbreds has had several horses named for Kansas locations. Fort Larned won the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic, and McPherson is a stablemate of McCraken, according to Janis Whitham’s son Clay.
“You have to name them something,” Clay said.
Janis Whitham’s husband Frank, a banker and rancher, died in a 1993 plane crash. Clay’s siblings are Barth, Jeff, Stewart and Jennifer Whitham-Jensik.
Owning several Kansas and Colorado banks, along with farming and ranching operations, the family has the Whitham Farms Feed Yard at Leoti.
McCraken was Whitham Thoroughbreds’ first horse to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.
After Frank Whitham’s passing, Janis was listed as the sole owner of the Thoroughbred business until 2014. Now 85, Janis has been involved with horses since she was a young girl, riding horses with her sister, Donna, near Scott City.
“Whitham Thoroughbreds is a family-run activity, but my mother is still the boss,” Clay said. “After Dad passed away, Mom was firm and there never was any question that it was something she wanted to continue to do and continues to manage.
“Mom really loves horses. She really enjoys managing broodmares and selecting the matings for them. She enjoys going back to Lexington and seeing the mares and foals.
“Mom enjoys watching them run, but she gets just as much enjoyment out of going to the horse farm and seeing the babies and the mares,” Clay said.
The Whithams had four colts foaled in 2014. Sired by Ghostzapper and out of Ivory Empress by Seeking The Gold, McCraken wasn’t considered special.
“He came out of nowhere,” Clay said. “McCraken really has an interesting personality. He is very much full of himself. He feels like he must be a champion.
“McCraken’s a lot of fun to be around, but he’s a challenge for his trainer and his groom. Actually, McCraken’s a little more rambunctious than you would always prefer him to be,” Clay evaluated.
In six starts, McCraken has only been out of the money once. His four wins, and one third, total career earnings of $410,848.
A week removed from the disappointing Derby, McCraken was returned to track workout Sunday, May 14, said trainer Ian Wilkes.
“McCraken suffered a puncture to his left hind leg getting banged at the Derby start,” Wilkes explained. “I’ve been conservative with him, but he’s fine. We’ll live to fight another day.
“I thought McCraken made a tremendous move in the Derby,” Wilkes evaluated. “As soon as I saw Brian (Hernandez Jr., the jockey) ask him to go, I thought to myself, ‘Here we go, we’re going to be right there.’ Then, McCraken flattened out. I need to figure out why.”
Wilkes has tabbed the Matt Winn Grade III race, June 17, at Churchill Downs as McCraken’s next target.