McCraken Draws Post Two, Installed As 7-5 Favorite For Toyota Blue Grass

Whitham Thoroughbreds' undefeated homebred McCraken has been installed as the 7-5 morning-line favorite in a field of seven 3-year-olds for Saturday's 93rd running of the $1 million Toyota Blue Grass (G2).

The 1 1/8-mile main track test serves as a major steppingstone for the $2 million Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) to be run May 6 at Churchill Downs.

The Toyota Blue Grass offers 170 points toward qualification for this year's Derby with 100 points going to the winner, 40 to the runner-up, 20 to third place and 10 points to fourth. The Kentucky Derby is limited to the top 20 point earners that pass the entry box and currently the cut line is 20 points.

The Toyota Blue Grass will go as the 10th race on Saturday's 11-race program with a 6:17 p.m. ET post time. First post time Saturday is 1:05 p.m.

Trained by Ian Wilkes and ridden in all four of his starts by Brian Hernandez Jr., McCraken has won three stakes with graded victories coming in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) at Churchill Downs to close out 2016 and the Sam F. Davis (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs in his lone 2017 start.

McCraken will break from post position two in his bid to give Wilkes and Hernandez their first Toyota Blue Grass victory.

“Post two is OK. I don't think it will be any problem,” said Wilkes. “Just leave things up to (jockey) Brian (Hernandez Jr.) to ride the race. The goal is the first Saturday in May, and he doesn't have to win this race. I don't want to put that pressure on the horse. If he gets the right race and moves forward, we'll be fine.”

Second choice on the line at 5-2 is Bridlewood Farm, Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Robert LaPenta's Tapwrit.

Winner of the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) in his most recent start and runner-up to McCraken in the Sam F. Davis, Tapwrit will be attempting to give seven-time Eclipse Award-training Todd Pletcher a record fourth Toyota Blue Grass victory.

Pletcher, who won the Toyota Blue Grass with Bandini in 2005, Monba in 2008 and Carpe Diem in 2015, is one of five trainers to win this race three times. The others are all Hall of Famers: LeRoy Jolley, Ben Jones, Woody Stephens and Nick Zito.

Jose Ortiz, who will be seeking his initial Toyota Blue Grass victory, has the mount and will break from post position four.

“I'm very happy,” said Pletcher's assistant Ginny DePasquale. “He's right in the middle, which is perfect. He can see horses on both sides. I think Todd will be pleased. It's not a big field, so (Tapwrit will) stay out of trouble.”

The 7-2 third choice on handicapper Mike Battaglia's morning line is Klaravich Stable and William Lawrence's Practical Joke.

Trained by 2016 Eclipse Award winner Chad Brown, who is seeking his first Toyota Blue Grass victory, Practical Joke enters Saturday's race off a runner-up finish in the Fountain of Youth (G2) on March 4 at Gulfstream Park. As a 2-year-old, Practical Joke won the Hopeful (G1) at Saratoga and the Champagne (G1) at Belmont Park before closing 2016 with a third-place finish in the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) at Santa Anita.

Joel Rosario, who won the 2011 Toyota Blue Grass on Brilliant Speed, has the mount on Practical Joke and will break from post position seven.

“I normally wouldn't be thrilled with (the outside post), but it's not a big field,” Brown said. “I don't think it'll be a big issue.”

Two other trainers will be attempting to join Pletcher with three victories in the race: Dale Romans and Kenny McPeek.

Romans, who will send out J Boys Echo for the Albaugh Family Stable, won last year's race with Brody's Cause, also owned by Albaugh. Should Romans repeat, he would become the third trainer to win the Toyota Blue Grass in consecutive years, joining Jolley with Honest Pleasure and For the Moment in 1976 and 1977, and Jones with Faultless in 1947 and Coaltown in 1948.

J Boys Echo, who broke his maiden here last fall in his second start and won the Gotham (G3) at Aqueduct in his most recent outing, will be ridden by Robby Albarado and break from post position three. J Boys Echo is 4-1 on the morning line.

“Post position can't be an excuse,” Romans said. “The three (post) is about as good as you can get in a seven-horse field. It's a good field of horses. You have three or four that are really top horses.”

McPeek, who won the race in 2002 with Harlan's Holiday and in 2013 with Java's War, will send out It's Your Nickel for the ownership group of Harold Lerner, AWC Stables, Nehoc Stables and Magdelena Stable.

Winner of the John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park on March 4 in his most recent start, It's Your Nickel will be ridden by James Graham and break from post position one as a 20-1 morning-line proposition.

“(The inside post) is not ideal, but he seems very versatile,” said McPeek assistant Alan Shell. “He's won on three surfaces (turf, dirt and all-weather). He's handled everything we've thrown at him.”

In addition to Rosario, one other rider is going for a second Toyota Blue Grass victory.

Julien Leparoux, who won the 2013 renewal on Java's War, will ride Irap for trainer Doug O'Neill. Owned by Reddam Racing, Irap will try to become the first maiden to win the race. Irap is 20-1 on the morning line and will break from post position six.

“It is a tough race, but our son of Tiznow has special ability if he puts it together,” O'Neill said. “Blinkers off … here we go.”

The field for the Toyota Blue Grass, with riders and morning-line odds, from the rail out is: It's Your Nickel (Graham, 20-1), McCraken (Hernandez, 7-5), J Boys Echo (Albarado, 4-1), Tapwrit (Ortiz, 5-2), Wild Shot (Corey Lanerie, 15-1), Irap (Leparoux, 20-1), Practical Joke (Rosario, 7-2). All starters will carry 123 pounds.

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