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Off since February, McCraken returns as Blue Grass favorite

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Ian Wilkes grinned as McCraken bristled during a recent post-workout bath, chalking it up to the colt’s feisty side.

The trainer’s grin widened into a smile when the subject turned to the unbeaten horse’s workouts at Keeneland that have shown the upside to his restlessness. The minor left front ankle injury that kept him out of last month’s Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby has given way to quick times that have Wilkes hopeful about his prospects for Saturday’s $1 million Blue Grass Stakes.

“He has really thrived since he’s come here,” Wilkes said this week. “I’m very pleased with how he’s trained. His attitude, he’s a happy horse and everything’s going in the right direction.”

McCraken’s next challenge is turning his nearly two-month layoff into another victory as the 7-5 morning line favorite in the 1 1/8-mile Grade 2 Blue Grass. The winner earns 100 points toward the Kentucky Derby on May 6, with the next three finishers getting 40, 20 and 10 points, respectively.

The Kentucky-bred McCraken has 20 points on the Derby leaderboard, but appears locked into the 143rd Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs. His 4-0 start includes a 1 1/2-length victory in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay on Feb. 11 in his 3-year-old debut.

Wilkes said he could’ve run McCraken in the Tampa Bay Derby, but chose not to when the horse appeared off after a workout and the injury was diagnosed. Rest and treatment seem have to done the trick, evidenced by Sunday’s 49.40-second workout over a half-mile, his third at Keeneland since arriving in mid-March.

“He’s taken care of me, so it was my turn to take care of him,” Wilkes said of holding out McCraken. “He’s bigger, he’s stronger now, he’s developed more … At the time I didn’t like him, so maybe it (the injury) might have been a blessing for me.”

McCraken drew the No. 2 post position and will lead a seven-horse field that includes 5-2 second choice Tapwrit, trained by Todd Pletcher, who seeks his second Blue Grass win in three years and record fourth overall. Tapwrit was second to McCraken in the Davis but won the Tampa Bay Derby and has 54 Derby points.

Practical Joke, a two-time Grade 1 winner, is the 7-2 third choice and has 34 points.

All eyes at Keeneland will be on McCraken to see if he adds a third straight graded stakes win in the Blue Grass and establishes himself as a Derby favorite. Not since Strike the Gold in 1991 has this race produced a Derby champion.

McCraken’s performance was incentive enough for jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. to pack up his family after guiding Girvin to victory in the Louisiana Derby and drive 10 hours north just to work his horse on Sunday. Though tired, Hernandez liked everything he saw about the horse who has done well with him aboard.

“He’s a lot more mature,” Hernandez said. “His last couple of works, he’s working by himself and is really focused on his job and has gone out there and done exactly as we’ve wanted him to. He’s really enjoying it.”

The Blue Grass headlines Keeneland’s impressive opening weekend of stakes races that includes the $500,000 Ashland for fillies, which awards 170 points toward the May 5 Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs.

Daddy’s Little Darling is the 5-2 favorite in the race run over 1 1/16 mile, with Elate and Pretty City Dancer next at 7-2. Summer Luck and Tapped are 4-1 third choices in the eight-horse field.

American filly Lady Aurelia wins again at Royal Ascot

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ASCOT, England — American filly Lady Aurelia won at Royal Ascot for the second straight year, cruising to a three-length victory in the King’s Stand Stakes under replacement jockey John Velazquez on Tuesday.

“She’s a once-in-a-lifetime horse,” said trainer Wesley A. Ward after Lady Aurelia backed up her win in the Queen Mary Stakes in 2016.

Frankie Dettori was scheduled to ride Lady Aurelia, but pulled out of the entire meeting early Tuesday after failing to recover from an arm injury sustained when he was thrown off a horse in a parade ring last week.

Velazquez was drafted in and settled the U.S. horse into a good early position. Lady Aurelia took the lead with two furlongs to run and pulled away, winning the five-furlong race in 57.45 seconds, just short of a course record.

“This is wonderful for American racing,” said Ward, who has eight career winners at Ascot since 2009. Six of those wins have been by juveniles.

Ward has 10 entries at the prestigious meeting staged just outside London, as part of the largest contingent of U.S. runners – 14 – to compete at Royal Ascot.

Following the arrival of Queen Elizabeth II at the course ahead of the start of the meeting, racing was preceded by a minute’s silence in honor of the victims of attacks in Britain in recent weeks.

Royal Ascot to make to make U.S. Television debut

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STAMFORD, Conn. – NBCSN presents daily live coverage of the Royal Meeting in Ascot, Berkshire, England – one of the most prestigious horse racing meets in the world – beginning Tuesday, June 20, at 8:30 a.m. ET. NBCSN’s live coverage of the full five-day Royal meeting, Tuesday through Saturday, June 24, will air daily from 8:30 a.m.-1 p.m. ET — for a total of 22.5 coverage hours. This year’s coverage marks the U.S. television debut of the event.

Royal Ascot is one of the world’s most valuable horse racing events, attracting many of the world’s finest racehorses. The event features 30 races, including eight at the world championship “Group One” level. Five US‑based trainers are expected to field a total of 14 runners, headlined by Todd Pletcher, whose horses won the Kentucky Derby (Always Dreaming) and Belmont Stakes (Tapwrit) this year. Pletcher’s American Patriot runs in Tuesday’s Queen Anne Stakes.

The Royal Meeting is the center of the British social season and a pivotal week in the calendar of the Royal Family, who arrive every day by the world famous “Royal Procession” – with the first carriage carrying The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.