One step at a time

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“Is it six days?

Time flies when you’re having fun.

“That’s amazing.”

Then Ian Wilkes laughed long and hard.

It’s easy to laugh when an undefeated 3-year-old returns from a 10-week freshening to win his seasonal debut, improving his record to 4-for-4. That’s exactly what Whitham Thoroughbreds’ homebred McCraken did to secure the Grade 3 Sam Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs Feb. 11. Six days after the race (yes, it took us another four days to write this), Wilkes was still feeling ebullient about McCraken’s long and steady rally that secured the 1 1/16-mile stakes by 1 1/2 lengths over Tapwrit, a $1.2 million son of Tapit, and maiden winner State of Honor. Ridden by Brian Hernandez Jr., McCraken set a track record of 1:42.45 in the Davis.

“Coming off a good 2-year-old season, you always have that question from 2 to 3, you have to take that step forward,” Wilkes said. “I was fortunate to run him three times at Churchill. This was a different surface, he had to give weight, then watching the track play to inside speed all day…am I going to see a different horse? Given that, and he was blowing after the race, I was very pleased, he stepped up and did what I wanted.”

McCraken has stepped up four times, winning his debut at Churchill Downs in early October, taking the Street Sense 28 days later and checking off the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at the end of November.

Conservative by nature and tutelage, Wilkes skipped the Breeders’ Cup and other Grade 1 stakes with McCraken last year, allowing him to develop in his own time. Tick, tack, toe, a break and a plan – starting with the Sam Davis and two more preps before the Kentucky Derby. That is if McCraken takes Wilkes to the Derby. That’s the key. That’s what Hall of Famer Carl Nafzger ingrained in his former assistant and that’s how Wilkes goes about training McCraken or any of his 70 or so horses.

 “It just comes down to it, if you want to get in a hurry and change something and not listen, you won’t have a horse, you won’t be there. You have to let the horse do it, you just have to let him do it. That’s the key,” Wilkes said. “Then enjoy it. That’s the one thing I learned from Unbridled to Street Sense.”

Nafzger, with Wilkes at his side, won the Derby with Unbridled in 1990 and again with Street Sense in 2007. For Wilkes, the 17 years in between made all the difference.

“We had a good time with Unbridled but it was all a blur,” Wilkes said. “With Street Sense, I slowed down and enjoyed it.”

This year, Wilkes plans to follow the Street Sense motif.

“This horse, oh yeah, I’m enjoying,” Wilkes said. “It’s a lot of work but it’s lot of fun. The calls, the interviews, things like that, but if you didn’t have a good horse, you wouldn’t get called, so it’s a plus.”

Old school, Nafzger honed Street Sense with five starts as a 2-year-old and just two as a 3-year-old before the Derby. Nafzger crafted Unbridled with six starts at 2 and four starts before the Derby. Wilkes sees similarities but recognizes one big difference between the horses and, with that in mind, plans on giving McCraken three races before the Derby.

“I’ve got a little different horse than Street Sense, he had faced adversity, he learned, he was battle tested. I just felt like my horse hadn’t been battle tested, he’s won too easy, done everything too easy. I hope he never gets battled tested, but I just felt like he hasn’t faced any adversity yet,” Wilkes said. “One step at a time, it’s like a building blocks, if I try to put the biggest part on first, it’s going to fall over. I’ve got to stack my blocks and build it the right way with my ultimate goal of putting the crown on top, the Kentucky Derby.”

Wilkes talks confidently, contentedly. But, trainers are only as confident, content, as their horse is looking, acting. A good-feeling horse who cries for his feed every feeding hour (“You can never get him filled up,” Wilkes said), McCraken was the most precocious, most forward of Whitham’s crop of six 2-year-olds last season and has progressed further.

“He’s always been a nice colt, he gives you confidence, that’s the key,” Wilkes said. “When I was getting him ready for his first race, I was like, ‘Where am I?’ I worked him with a stake horse, a very good work horse and he made him look like a $20,000 claimer. Then I worked that stake horse the next week and he worked faster than a minute by himself.”

It’s been smooth sailing through four races – and counting. Wilkes has penciled the Tampa Bay Derby March 11 as McCraken’s next start and the Blue Grass April 8 as his final prep for the Derby. But, he’s flexible.

“The Tampa Bay Derby. That’s my next one. Most likely the Blue Grass, but I don’t want to get too far ahead. I want to have a window where I’m able to adjust things, if I feel like I want an extra week, I have an extra week in there,” Wilkes said. “Carl and I have always talked about a plan for him, but the biggest thing is don’t screw him up, don’t get in his way. I go back to what Carl always says, ‘The horse will tell you.’ ”

So far, McCraken has been telling. And, Wilkes has been listening.