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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.

Tiger Roll wins Grand National in photo finish

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AINTREE, England — Tiger Roll won the Grand National Steeplechase in a photo finish over Pleasant Company as Irish horses dominated the world’s most famous steeplechase at Aintree on Saturday.

A 4 1/2-mile (6,400-meter) race was won by a matter of inches in the closest finish to the Grand National since 2012, when Neptune Collonges won by a nose.

Tiger Roll, a 10-1 shot, was leading by as much as 10 lengths in the long run to the line, but only just held off the fast-finishing Pleasant Company (25-1) to win a first prize of 500,000 pounds ($710,000).

“I did have a big fear,” said jockey Davy Russell, who won the race for the first time at his 14th attempt. “It would have been heartbreaking.”

The first four horses home in the National were from Ireland, including Bless The Wings (40-1) and Anibale Fly (10-1).

It was the second National victory for both trainer Gordon Elliott, who also won with Silver Birch in 2007, and owner Michael O’Leary, who had 2016 winner Rule The World. O’Leary is chief executive of budget airline Ryanair.

“We bought the horse as a pint-sized hurdler,” O’Leary said, “but he’s got a heart of a lion.”

Russell grew up dreaming of winning the National. As a child, he erected Aintree-style fences in his garden and pretended to ride a horse over them.

“I’ve won this race thousands of times (in my head),” Russell said. “But not like this.”

David Mullins, the jockey of Pleasant Company, said he thought he was well-beaten after jumping the next-to-last fence.

“Davy was going so much better than me,” Mullins said.

That seemed to be the case as the horses made it past the elbow in the run to the line, but Pleasant Company closed in as Tiger Roll faded. It was too close to call as they crossed the line and the 171st edition of the race required a photo finish to separate them.

Total Recall went off as the 7-1 favorite but fell.

 

Baffert: McKinzie won’t run in Santa Anita Derby

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ARCADIA, Calif. (AP) McKinzie will miss the Santa Anita Derby on April 7 because of an unspecified problem.

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert confirmed the colt won’t run in the West Coast’s major prep for the Kentucky Derby due to an issue in one of his hind legs. X-rays and scans haven’t confirmed what it is.

Baffert said Saturday in Dubai that McKinzie is “definitely out,” according to multiple media reports. He says he’s being “very cautious.”

The colt edged Bolt d’Oro in the San Felipe Stakes on March 10, but was disqualified and placed second for interference in the stretch.

McKinzie was 10th on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 40 points for owners Karl Watson, Mike Pegram and Paul Weitman. The colt won the Los Alamitos CashCall Futurity on Dec. 9 and the Sham Stakes on Jan. 6.

Baffert was in the Middle East to saddle West Coast and Mubtaahij to second- and third-place finishes in the $10 million Dubai World Cup.