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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.

Polarisation wins again in re-run Sydney Cup

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SYDNEY — Visiting English trainer Charlie Appleby and his five-year-old gelding Polarisation claimed poetic justice on Saturday with victory in the Sydney Cup at Randwick racecourse, two weeks after “winning” the abandoned first running of one of Australia’s biggest races.

The 3,200-meter (2-mile) Group 1 feature, worth 2 million Australian dollars ($1.5 million), was controversially called off midway on April 8 amid safety concerns, as an injured horse lay stricken on the track. With former European stallion Almoonqith immobilized just after the winning post, officials decided to abandon the race, with mounted officials attempting to relay the decision to jockeys around the 1,000-meter mark.

However, only half the jockeys heard the message and pulled their horses up. Another six carried on, with Polarisation finishing first and his jockey Corey Brown celebrating.

Brown later led criticism of the decision to abandon the race, saying the field could easily have dodged the fallen Almoonqith – which was later euthanized – and his attendants after passing the post.

But given another chance, Polarisation proved it was no fluke, winning by a neck under Brown again. Sydney galloper Who Shotthebarman, who dislodged his jockey Blake Shinn after interference from Almoonqith in the race two weeks ago, finished second under Shinn again.

Polarisation, raced by the Godolphin thoroughbred empire of Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, earned 1.17 million Australian dollars ($880,000) for the win.

Javier Castellano still eyeing elusive Kentucky Derby

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. — Javier Castellano is arguably the best jockey in racing right now.

Except, that is, at the Kentucky Derby.

It is a baffling fact: The top rider in the game – he’s won the Eclipse Award as the sport’s best in each of the last four years – has the worst record of any jockey ever to ride in the Kentucky Derby. And even with all his accomplishments, when the Run for the Roses draws near the most glaring omission from his resume starts gnawing at him.

This is the one he wants, more than anything else.

“To win this race, it would mean a lot,” Castellano said. He paused for a moment, looked up and quietly continued his thought: “A lot,” he said again.

Castellano has ridden in the Kentucky Derby 10 times. He’s 0 for 10 in those starts. Not just 0 for 10, mind you, but he’s never finished second, never even finished third. Only Rafael Bejarano has such a record with at least 10 Derby appearances, and every jockey with 11 or more Derby mounts has crossed the line first, second or third at least once.

So history says 2017 has to be Castellano’s time. He’ll be aboard Gunnevera in this year’s Derby on May 6.

“He told me that he wanted to ride this horse,” said Gunnevera trainer Antonio Sano, who like Castellano is a native of Venezuela. “He called me and said that. That meant very much.”

Sano believes the breakthrough is coming.

“I think he’s the best,” Sano said.

The numbers certainly suggest that Sano might be right.

Besides the four straight Eclipse Awards – something only Jerry Bailey has done among jockeys – Castellano is a finalist this year for enshrinement in racing’s Hall of Fame, with the announcement of the new induction class coming on Monday. His mounts have collected over $275 million in earnings, a total only four other jockeys have reached. He’s won nearly 5,000 races, seven of them at the Breeders’ Cup.

It’s not like he can’t win the big one.

He just hasn’t won this big one – yet.

“This is my target,” Castellano said. “It would be more than a dream come true. It’s the one thing as a jockey that you want, to get to that level. This is the one.”

Castellano was aboard the favored Bellamy Road in 2005, but finished seventh. Of his other nine starters, only two have gone off at odds less than 10-1. The closest he came to the win was 2013, when Normandy Invasion had the lead in the stretch – on a soaking wet track – before finishing fourth.

It’s not just the Triple Crown races that haven’t brought Castellano great luck. Besides his Derby troubles, he’s 0 for 10 in the Belmont and 1 for 5 in the Preakness. Add them up and Castellano is 1 for 25 in those classics, with no wins in his last 21 starts.

None of that is holding him back, and trainers still clamor for his services. He’s No. 3 in earnings so far this year, despite paring his schedule down just a bit, and still hits the board – racing parlance for finishing in the top three – in more than half of his starts.

“I’ve had so much success with Javier, and we have great chemistry together,” reigning Eclipse Award trainer winner Chad Brown said. “He studies the races very well. And if he’s ridden a horse before, he learns a lot from it and applies it to the next race.”

That’s why Gunnevera might be a lively pick on Derby day.

Castellano has been aboard him four times, with two wins, a second-place finish and most recently a third-place showing in the Florida Derby when Gunnevera made a huge run from the back of the field. And every time, Castellano has come away a little more convinced that he’s going to Churchill Downs with a real shot.

“Absolutely, this is what I’ve been looking for,” Castellano said. “Maybe things will go well. Maybe this is the year.”