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Kentucky Derby hopeful has western Kansas ties

Credit Courtesy / Coady Photography
Coady Photography
McCraken stretches out during his morning workout at Keeneland Racetrack in Lexington, Kentucky, April 2.

*This story first appeared in High Plains Journal on April 23, 2017. 

Patience and racehorses do not necessarily coincide. But for a western Kansas family, patience has paid off.

Janis Whitham of Leoti, Kansas, has a horse headed for the Kentucky Derby—if he stays well and continues to train soundly, according to Whitham’s son Clay. Their 3-year-old colt, McCraken, is currently at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, with trainer Ian Wilkes training for a Derby start.

“He’s going to be training there for the next three weeks, and he’s eligible for the Kentucky Derby,” Clay Whitham said. “Hopefully things will go good with him and if he does well, and trains well probably get to run him there.”

McCraken—who is named after the tiny Kansas town, McCracken—has won four of his five starts with $410,848 in career earnings, according to www.bloodhorse.com. His last outing was a third-place finish in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, April 8, where he went a mile and an eighth. Whitham has confidence he’s on the right track for the Derby, May 6.

“Obviously getting a horse in the Kentucky Derby is every Thoroughbred owner’s dream,” Whitham said. “When they’re babies and they start running you don’t really have any idea how good they are. He’s been a big surprise.”

McCraken may not have been a surprise to Clay’s mother, Janis, as she’s in charge of all the breeding choices on their small band of Thoroughbred broodmares residing in Kentucky.

“My mother, she’s the boss of what goes on with the horses,” Whitham said. “She plans all the matings.”

The mares are boarded in Kentucky because most Thoroughbred stallions stay there and it’s simpler to keep them there instead of transporting them back and forth. The Whithams are certainly thankful for the colt and believe in his potential. That success goes back to the dam’s side of McCraken’s pedigree. He’s a son of Ghostzapper and out of Ivory Empress.

“This mare is really a bit of an interesting story in that both my parents have been around horses all their lives and transitioned from owning Quarter Horses that were all based out in western Kansas, to raising thoroughbreds,” Whitham said.

About 30 years ago Whitham’s parents, Janis and Frank, purchased the third dam of Ivory Empress, Tuesday Evening.

“She was one of the earlier thoroughbreds that they purchased,” Whitham said. “They took her and raced her for a little while and got a foal out of her.”

That foal, Madame Pandit, produced Ivory Empress. Both mares were stakes placed at sprint distances. Ivory Empress had career earnings nearing $200,000 with her 20 race starts.

“Those mares—I guess you would say—are one of the foundations that we’ve kind of kept that family all the way back to 1983,” Whitham said. “We raised the second dam and the dam of him, Ivory Empress and then raised him.”

Having the three generations in the pedigree is special for Whitham, and the patience is really starting to pay off.

“There’s been a few good horses in between, but the patience really paid off with this horse,” Whitham said. “ During the lean times you kind of wonder about it.”

They’ve been fortunate for things to work out the way they have.

“He’s been great. He looks like he’s ready to go,” Whitham said. “My plans are he’s going to go and we’re planning on it.”

Kylene Scott can be reached at kscott@hpj.com or 620-227-1804.