McCraken, Bird Song Could Give Tracy Wilkes And Family A Fun Night at “Downs After Dark”

LOUISVILLE, KY (June 17, 2017) – Tracy Wilkes just happened to be near the Churchill Downs Stakes Room on Friday when her good friend, Lorie Hebel-Osborne, grabbed her and asked if she would mind speaking to a group of realtors visiting the track.

Tracy Wilkes
Tracey Wilkes, the wife of trainer Ian Wilkes and the assistant trainer and exercise rider for the barn, chats with Lori Hebel-Osborne at Churchill Downs.

Per normal, Tracy Wilkes didn’t mind at all. She hopped up to the lectern just as easily as she bounces on most of the horses she helps train in the mornings at Churchill Downs for her husband, top trainer Ian Wilkes.

​“It’s a team effort, most days,” she says for her daily routine of getting to the track to exercise horses, get back home to take care of family matters and clean up before returning to the track for the day’s racing events.

“I pass myself coming and going on the Waterson Expressway on most days,” she said with her beautiful Australian accent and a warm Kentucky smile.

Tracey and Ian may pass themselves on the way to the paddock on Saturday night. And, maybe even on their way to the winner’s circle, too. After all, they are saddling horses in races 1,4,5,6,7 and 8. Whew.

​If that chore isn’t daunting and nerve-wracking enough, just consider they have a horse in four of the five Graded Stakes races being held at Churchill Downs on their uplifting “Downs After Dark” program Saturday night, as well. The only one they will miss is the Grade 3 Regret in the 9th.
​In the fifth race, the Grade 3 Matt Winn, the Wilkes’ will saddle McCraken. In the sixth, the Grade 2 Wise Dan, they have both Bondurant and Thatcher Street. In the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis Stakes, they have Walkabout. And, it the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap, they have Bird Song.
​“A busy day, for sure,” Tracey Wilkes said, after her brief welcoming remarks.

​Busy, for sure. And, perhaps, noteworthy, too. For the entire industry.

​In the fifth, the Grade 3 Matt Winn Stakes, the Wilkes family will be saddling three-time stakes winner McCraken – who will be making his first start since being injured in a rough start to this year’s Kentucky Derby.

​Despite his troubles, which ended up costing him a deep cut to his left hind leg, McCraken will managed to run a game eighth in the muddy Derby. A tribute to his guts and character.

​“It was a nasty injury,” said Tracey Wilkes. “He was in the first stall of the auxiliary gate, and as soon as it opened, another horse came over on him and pushed him into Classic Empire. He was cut up pretty good. It took a good chunk out of him and cut an artery, too. He bled for awhile after the race, too, and we were so worried about the possibility of an infection.

​“But he has come back really good. We think he is ready.”

​It appears McCraken – a son of Ghostzapper – was born ready. He won his first four races of his career – all impressively. In his typical, closing style, he captured the Street Sense Stakes and the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs last fall, before easily beating eventual Belmont Stakes winner Tapwrit in the Sam Davis Stakes at Tampa on Feb. 11 to begin his 3YO career.

​McCraken didn’t suffer his first loss until he ran third in the Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland, after missing a little training time with a tender ankle. But the Keeneland surface definitely was not playing to closers that weekend, and all seemed to be good going into the Derby.

​The horse looked great. And, the Wilkes Family, who we visited regularly, seemed to be ready, as well.

​But the Derby trip did not play out as well, as when they were on hand to watch Unbridled win the Derby for trainer Carl Nafzger and owner Frances Ginter. Ian Wilkes served as Nafzger’s assistant back then.

​Now, they are looking for a cleaner trip. And, some redemption in the Grade 3 Matt Winn.

​“For all those that were disappointed, please keep the faith,” said Tracey Wilkes. “He will redeem himself. He’s a good one.”

​And, as time will tell, maybe a great one…

The horse broke well today,” Gaffalione said. “I had the horse inside, Dunph, going to the lead and then (Gun It) showed a little bit of speed. When I saw they were intent on going I just tried to get him back and got him to relax. He came back to me nicely and settled well down the backside. Got a little keen going into the far turn and wanted to move a little early. But I didn’t want to take too much away from him so I tried to sit as long as I could. He was waiting on horses down the lane but I kept him at task and there was plenty of horse there.”

“Mark (Casse, the trainer) and his team have done a great job,” Gaffalione said. “They’ve had a ton of confidence in this horse the whole way. It’s just an honor to be able to ride the horse. He’s just so professional, trains great and he’s a pleasure to be around.”

Tyler Gaffalione, Rode of War of Will to victory in the G2 Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds
  • Gene McLean

    Gene McLean

    Gene McLean began his professional career in 1977 as a sportswriter and columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky., and was recognized as one of the state’s best writers, winning the prestigious “Sportswriter of the Year” honor in 1985. Now the President and Publisher of The Pressbox, McLean sets ...

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