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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.

Wood Memorial boosts purse to attract top horses

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NEW YORK — The Wood Memorial purse could increase to $1 million as part of a bonus created to entice the top 3-year-olds to run in the Kentucky Derby prep on April 7.

New York Racing Association officials said Saturday that the presence of any horse in the field with a previous Grade 1 or Group 1 victory would increase the purse from $750,000 to $1 million if the qualifying horse starts. In that case, the winner would receive $590,000, the runner-up would earn $190,000 and third would be worth $90,000.

The Wood is run at 1 1/8 miles at Aqueduct. The race is part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby prep series that awards 100 points to the winner, 40 to second, 20 to third and 10 to fourth. The top 20 horses on the leaderboard earn starting spots in the Derby on May 5.

Jack Van Berg dies at 81

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Jack Van Berg, a Hall of Fame trainer who oversaw Alysheba to victories in the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, died Wednesday. He was 81.

He died in a Little Rock, Arkansas, hospital, according to a spokeswoman for Oaklawn Park, where Van Berg had relocated his training base after leaving Southern California in 2013. No cause was given.

Van Berg ranks fourth all-time among trainers in North America, with 6,523 victories from 41,164 starts, according to Equibase. He had career purse earnings of $85,925,482.

In the Derby, Alysheba and jockey Chris McCarron were nearly knocked down at the top of the stretch by Bet Twice. Alysheba recovered and won despite having just one career victory before the Run for the Roses. Alysheba won the Preakness to set up a try for the Triple Crown but finished fourth in the Belmont.

As a 4-year-old, Alysheba won the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic and went on to earn the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year.

Van Berg saddled Gate Dancer to victory in the 1984 Preakness. That same year, he earned the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer.

Van Berg was elected to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1985. His father, trainer Marion Van Berg, already was there, having entered in 1970.

From 1959-77, Van Berg was the leading trainer at Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1976, he won a record 496 races and was the nation’s leading trainer, with $2,976,196 in purse earnings.

In 1987, Van Berg became the first trainer to win 5,000 races when he saddle Art’s Chandelle to victory at Arlington Park outside Chicago.

He trained in Southern California for 41 years until moving to Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Arkansas, after Hollywood Park closed in December 2013. Van Berg blamed the cities of Inglewood and Los Angeles and the state of California for the track’s closure.

“I just think it’s a pathetic thing,” he said at the time. “It’s ridiculous to let something like this that so many people love and thrive on close. They did everything they could to kill racing. I’ve had enough. I don’t like California racing anymore. I don’t like the way they run it and what they do.”

Van Berg mentored Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who began as an assistant to him.

Born June 7, 1936, in Columbus, Nebraska, John Charles Van Berg began training for his father in the 1960s. The elder Van Berg trained nearly 1,500 winners but was more successful as an owner, winning 4,691 races and $13,936,965. He was the first inductee of the Nebraska Racing Hall of Fame, and his son followed him.