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.

Newgate wins Robert B. Lewis Stakes; Baffert runs 1-2-3-4

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ARCADIA, Calif. — Newgate won the $200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes by a neck, with Bob Baffert as the trainer of all four horses in the Kentucky Derby prep race at Santa Anita.

Ridden by Frankie Dettori, Newgate ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.11 and paid $4 and $2.60 as the even-money favorite. There was no show wagering because of the field size.

Hard to Figure returned $5.20 at 12-1 odds. Worcester was another 1 3/4 lengths back in third. Arabian Lion was fourth.

“So much improvement in all these horses,” Baffert said. “I was actually nervous before the race, worried that something weird might happen, but I can relax now.”

The Lewis was a Kentucky Derby prep race, but no points were awarded because Baffert has been banned for two years by Churchill Downs Inc. The Hall of Fame trainer was in Louisville to testify in federal court as he seeks a temporary injunction to end the suspension, which runs through the end of the upcoming spring meet. It was meted out following a failed drug test by Medina Spirit after the colt finished first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

Newgate earned his first graded stakes victory. The colt was second, beaten by a neck in the Sham Stakes last month in his previous start.

“Frankie Dettori has been teaching him how to just sit back, relax and come with a punch and that’s what he did today,” Baffert said.

The victory, worth $120,000, increased Newgate’s career earnings to $241,975, with two wins in six starts.

Baffert: 2-year Churchill Downs suspension hurt reputation

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Churchill Downs never gave advance notice nor reached out to explain its two-year suspension, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said in federal court, and reiterated that the penalty has caused irreparable harm to his business and reputation.

Baffert has sued the historic track and is seeking a temporary injunction to stop his suspension following a failed drug test by the now-deceased Medina Spirit after the colt came in first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

The suspension for a series of failed tests by his horses runs through the end of the upcoming spring meet and could exclude Baffert from the Derby for a second consecutive spring.

Almost a year ago, Kentucky racing officials disqualified Medina Spirit and suspended Baffert for 90 days for those failed tests. Churchill Downs elevated Derby runner-up Mandaloun to winner.

“They’ve hurt my reputation,” Baffert said during nearly two hours of testimony in U.S. District Court. “My horses should’ve made much more money. I didn’t run for 90 days, and I had to let people go.”

Churchill Downs wants the case dismissed, citing nine failed tests by Baffert-trained horses as justification for disciplining horse racing’s most visible figure. The list of violators includes 2020 Kentucky Oaks third-place finisher Gamine, who was ultimately disqualified.

Medina Spirit failed his test for having in his system the corticosteroid betamethasone, which Baffert and attorney Clark Brewster have argued came from an ointment rather than an injection.

Track president Mike Anderson said the decision by Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen stemmed from Baffert’s “refusal to take responsibility for repeat violations” during a news conference at his backside barn after Medina Spirit’s failed test was revealed.

“We wanted to make a statement that this was a consequence of not doing the right thing,” Anderson said.

Attorneys Matt Benjamin and Christine Demana, who are representing Churchill Downs, also disputed Baffert’s contention that business has suffered by noting his latest crop of promising 3-year-old colts on this year’s Derby trail.

One of them, Arabian Knight, won last week’s Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn by 5+ lengths to give Baffert his record sixth win in the race. The horse is ineligible to earn Kentucky Derby qualifying points as the winner because of Baffert’s suspension.

A slide presented also showed that Baffert horses made 477 starts from May 10, 2021, through December 2022 and won marquee races such as the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (Corniche, the Eclipse winner) along with Grade 1 wins in the Pennsylvania Derby and Malibu Stakes (Taiba).

Friday’s 3 1/2-hour hearing followed four hours of testimony on Thursday. District Judge Rebecca Grady Jennings gave no indication when she would rule. But Brewster said he expects a decision “within several days.”

Baffert testified that he had had a good relationship with Churchill Downs, though he noted that he was paying for his seats at the track and having to “grovel” to get them. He also insisted that he tried to be a good ambassador for horse racing, especially after American Pharoah and Justify won the Triple Crown in 2015 and 2018, respectively.

“I think today was great because I finally got to tell my story in a nonbiased atmosphere,” he said. “I hope for the best, and hopefully we’ll be here.”