Ian Wilkes had to be all smiles this morning.  Had to be. Maybe even cracking a joke or two.

The reason?

His talented colt McCraken — who endured a tumultuous spring, first with an ankle injury that cost him a race in the Tampa Bay Derby and serious training time, and then a horrendous run in the Kentucky Derby when he sustained what could have been a life-threatening injury at the start — appears to be getting better and better. Again. And, McCraken was pretty daggone good to start with.

On Thursday morn, McCraken worked 5 furlongs in a quick 1:00.40 breezing, to record the best time out of seven working that distance.

“It was a good maintenance 5/8ths,” said Wilkes, when contacted by phone later this morning.  “I wasn’t worried about the time, at all.  It was the way he did it.  He handled everything very well; did it very easily and came off the track in good shape and very happy. He is doing really, really good right now.”

The next step for McCraken appears to be the $1 Million, G1 Haskell Invitational, which will be held on Sunday, July 30 at Monmouth Park in New Jersey.  The 11/8-mile contest will be the 50th running of the event and figures to attract a world-class field.

In addition to McCraken, the Haskell may draw the likes of Irish War Cry (second in the Belmont Stakes) for trainer Graham Motion; Classic Empire (second in the Preakness Stakes) for trainer Mark Casse; either Always Dreaming (Kentucky Derby winner) or Tapwrit (Belmont Stakes winner), or both, from the barn of trainer Todd Pletcher; the undefeated Timeline (who won the G3 Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth in his last out) and Practical Joke (who just won the 1-mile Dwyer Stakes at Belmont in his first race since a 5th place finish in the Kentucky Derby) from the barn of Chad Brown; American Anthem (who won the G2 Woody Stephens at Belmont Park on the undercard of the Belmont Stakes) for trainer Bob Baffert, who has won eight Haskell Invitationals already; Battle of Midway (who was third in the Derby) for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer; and, perhaps, both J Boys Echo (winner of the G3 Gotham Stakes) for trainer Dale Romans, and trainer Eddie Plesa Jr.’s Talk Logistics (runner-up to Timeline in the G3 Pegasus).

But, despite the depth and talented of the projected field for the Haskell, none of the 3-year-olds have recorded a better resume than McCraken, the strapping son of Ghostzapper and the Seeking the Gold mare Ivory Empress.  Before this year’s Blue Grass Stakes, McCraken was an undefeated 4-for-4, having captured the Street Sense Stakes, the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, and the G3 Sam F. Davis Stakes in addition to his maiden victory.

It was after the Tampa race that McCraken sustained a wrenched ankle, though, and he missed some training and a key race in the Tampa Bay Derby.  Instead of rushing him back into the fray, though, Wilkes did what he thought was best.  He gave his talented colt time to recover; time to heal; time to get better.  He thought the colt would be better in the long run.

It took awhile.  Maybe a bit longer than some wanted or expected.  On a speed favoring track at Keeneland, McCraken ran a solid third to Irap (who has come back to win the Ohio Derby and is now favored for this Saturday’s Indiana Derby) and Practical Joke in the G2 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.  “I was just playing catch up all spring, it seemed,” said Wilkes earlier this month.

Then there was the debacle at the beginning of the Kentucky Derby, when Irish War Cry veered left at the start, crashing into his gate mate McCraken, who, in turn, ran into Classic Empire.  All three were compromised from the beginning, but McCraken was left when a deep puncture wound on the left hind leg.  It was an injury that could have easily severed a tendon, or become infected.  Still, McCraken went on to run a gutty 8th.

But once again Wilkes took the high road — not crying about his poor luck (“That’s the Kentucky Derby; it’s a tough race,” said Wilkes, the day after the Run for the Roses.) And, Wilkes took the long road — allowing McCraken time to fully recover from his injuries, before rushing him back into the fray.  Once, he thought he was ready to return, Wilkes entered McCraken in the Matt Winn Stakes at Churchill Downs.

It was the old and the new McCraken.  Old style and kick.  New weight and strength. The colt made his normal, strong, impressive sweeping move coming out of the turn and galloped away to an impressive victory in the G3 Stakes, beating the likes of Colonelsdarktemper and Society Beau — who are both back in the Indiana Derby this Saturday, as well.

Now, it is time to tackle the big boys once again.  Refreshed. And, ready.

“We are going in the Haskell,” said Wilkes, on Thursday morning after the work.  “It looks like it is shaping up to be a pretty good race, but I just like the way our colt is doing right now.  He looks good.  He acts good.  He is feeling good.  If he is happy, then I am happy.”

Always, Ian Wilkes has said that he will let McCraken do all the talking.  It may just be time for both of them to get to the finish line and the microphone first.

It will be due justice.  There is no better person in racing these days than Ian Wilkes.  And, there may be no better 3-year-old colt than his McCraken.