This just in.  Got in touch with trainer Ian Wilkes today and he reports “All Good” on McCraken.  It is too early to tell where the 3YO son of Ghostzapper will show up next, but he came out of the G1 Haskell in good order.


Back to our regular programming…


Going into the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational on Sunday — one of the most celebrated and hyped horse races in the country this year, and, undoubtedly, the most interesting collection of the best 3-year-old colts in one event since the Kentucky Derby way back in May — the story lines were headlined by the Big City boys.

The talk was about Irish War Cry — trained at Fair Hill by Graham Motion — but known throughout for his impressive performances in the Big Apple, the city so nice they named it twice: New York, New York.  After all, he won the G1 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and nearly captured the last leg of the Triple Crown in the G1 Belmont Stakes.

The chatter before the race was about Battle of Midway, the California shipper who had just stomped all over three contenders in the G3 Affirmed Stakes at Santa Anita. After all, he nearly won the G1 Santa Anita Derby and had run third in the Kentucky Derby.  Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, who rarely talks much, was an affirmed believer in his beach boy from LA.

And, then there was the glamour camp of trainer Chad Brown, based in New York and trained both on Broadway and wherever the NY circuit takes him. He has never met a microphone, TV camera, makeup kit, or race he didn’t like.  And, to his credit lines, the guy and his horses play to great reviews.  You may not like the play, but the actors do glitter and perform under the lights of the show.  He brought both the undefeated Timeline and the steady straight main Practical Joke into the Haskell.  Before Sunday, the duo had combined to run in 12 races — including 9 Graded Stakes races. They had won 8 times, with 2 seconds and a third for a total of nearly $1.6 million in earnings. Now, take your bow Chad Brown.  The big stage is normally yours. So much so, in fact, that trainer Brian Lynch should probably consider letting you train the talented Oscar Performance. Only seems right.

But something really strange happened after the starter yelled “Lights, Camera, Action.” (OK, after he hit the starter’s button and the gate flew open.) The good, old boys from right here in Kentucky took over. And, shined the brightest. The hard boots stepped all over the penny loafers. The Timex boys kicked Team Rolex. The hard knockers kicked ass.

At the wire, there was Girvin — all muscle, all grit, all grind — putting a button nose down just in time to nip McCracken — who was all out, all guts, all glory. The horse that had trained at Churchill Downs’ Training Facility (the old Louisville Downs) up until about a month ago, had inched out the horse that just shipped up from Churchill Downs a few days ago.

Neither camp had an entourage.  They just had game. And, were dead game. All the way to the wire. All the way to the winner’s circle. And, all the way to the barn and back to the hotel.

Standing tall, or as tall as he can, was jockey Robby Albarado — who has spent most of his summer vacation at little Ellis Park in Henderson, KY. That’s the track that TVG commentator Matt Carothers said, on air one day, he didn’t have a clue where it was, and he didn’t care because he would never go there. Albarado got the call and the chance to replace the great, Hall of Famer Mike Smith on Girvin. Smith chose to go to Del Mar, which sits on the sunny side of San Diego, to ride Val Dore in the G1 Clement Hirsch, instead. It’s not an easy thing to do; to replace the best rider in the world right now. But Albarado — who had never been on Girvin’s back before Sunday — rode Girvin. He rode him all right and he rode him, alright.  He nearly rode the hide off him, until he inched his way to the front.

Standing tall was trainer Joe Sharp, who hails from Lexington.  Until recently — like in yesterday — he was best known for having married the former expert rider Rosie Napravnik. Oh, he has had a few starters at Saratoga this meet, but just think:

Sharp put the saddle on Girvin at tiny Thistledown Race Track (OK, quick quiz…can anyone name the city nearest Thistledown?) in his last race, and has burned up the road to Ellis Park on many occasions, too. In fact, he had two horses running at Ellis on Sunday.

But they were not the only ones to sparkle in the spectacle of the Haskell. Standing there, too, hoping against all hope that they had made it to the finish line in time with the determined McCraken were rider Brian Hernandez, Jr., and trainer Ian Wilkes.  Like most people in this transit business, they travel, too. They have mounts and saddles located at tracks here and there. But,for the most part, you can find these two fine gents in Kentucky. At Churchill Downs, most of the time.

In fact, Wilkes’ filly Champagne Problems won the feature at Ellis Park on Sunday.  She was expertly ridden by three-time Derby winner Calvin Borel.

There are no finer two people around that Hernandez and Wilkes.  None. After the race, at 5:57 p.m. ET, I texted Ian Wilkes and told him that his horse had just run one hell of a race; that he was a class act; and he had a great horse.

At 10:30 p.m. ET, Ian Wilkes texted back: “Thanks mate.”

After a tough beat like he had on Sunday afternoon, it would have been more than understandable if Ian didn’t respond. Truthfully, I didn’t write it expecting or needing one.

After coming so damn close to winning a Grade 1 stakes, with a $1 Million purse, it would have days — maybe weeks — before others would have surfaced. To be honest, that would have been me.

After watching his pet project — McCraken — certainly validate himself not only as one of the best 3-year-old colts in the country, it may have been easy to slip away and into a bottle for the night, instead of responding to a old, fat guy back home.

But that’s just what we do here in Kentucky.

We may not always get the pre-race publicity.  But we win our share of races. We win our share of friends.  We never forget where we come from, or how we got there — as we drive down that road to little Ellis Park.