Ian Wilkes has not won a Kentucky Derby on his own yet, but as the top assistant to Carl Nafzger he played a vital part in developing Street Sense, who took the roses in 2007. A native of Australia, Wilkes also galloped horses for Nafzger when he first came to the United States way back in 1989. One of the horses he routinely exercised for Nafzger was Unbridled, who of course won the 1990 Derby.
Wilkes knows what Derby-caliber horses look like. As with every horseman, he also knows luck plays an important role in getting one there, especially when it comes to keeping them healthy. But the 46-year-old trainer says there is no substitute for having talented 2-year-olds in the barn this time of year.
"It makes it easier to get up in the morning, that's for sure," Wilkes said.
Wilkes, who lives in Louisville and is based at Churchill Downs and nearby Skylight Training Center, has a stable full of promising juvenile in his barn, but two of them have the look of Triple Crown contenders. Perhaps the most talented is Timely Tally, who most recently finished third to Gemologist in the Nov. 26 Kentucky Jockey Club. If you haven't already done so, go back and watch the race again. He is the 3-horse, way at the back of the field under Calvin Borel. With no room on the rail, he's swung wide, comes from last around the turn while making a huge move, and is flying at the end. He fell two lengths short of Gemologist but likely would have passed him with a little more ground. Here were Wilkes' quotes after the race:
"He was still last at the quarter-pole and then he circles them at the quarter-pole and gets beat by two lengths. I wouldn't want to trade places with anyone going forward off this race. I just feel my horse is getting better. He's improving with racing. And you know he likes the track here, so that's a good sign."
Timely Tally is by Mr. Greeley, out of the A.P. Indy mare Score. Owner A. Steven Miles Jr. paid $220,000 for him at the Keeneland September 2010 yearling sale. Wilkes helped pick out the horse.
"Obviously we liked his pedigree, but he also had good conformation and looked like a runner," Wilkes said Dec. 6. "Now, sometimes they look like runners and they can't run a jump, but he had all the attributes. We paid a little more for him than we thought we'd have to, but hopefully we'll get rewarded."
Timely Tally ran off the board in his first two starts at Saratoga this summer, both in sprints. Wilkes knew he needed more ground, so took him to Keeneland for a two-turn race in October. He won by a beck, but it was much better than it looked on paper.
"He won from the 12-pole that day. If you look at the results from Keeneland, I don't think there were many that won from out there at a mile and a sixteenth or longer," Wilkes said.
In his next start at Churchill, Timely Tally was second by two lengths to Gemologist in an optional claimer. He was making up plenty of ground at the end, as he did four weeks later in the KJC.
"Gemologist has beaten him two lengths both times; he's a good horse, give him credit," Wilkes said. "But the good part is that (Timely Tally) justified us moving him ahead. He took the next step (in the KJC) coming off that allowance race and just didn't get the trip. But he proved that he belonged. And if he improves a little more he can take us there."
Wilkes shipped Timely Tally down to his barn at Palm Meadows in Florida after the KJC and will map out a 3-year-old campaign for him in the near future. One of the things he will do when picking his spots is figure out how to separate him from his other standout-Motor City.
Motor City is by Street Sense, out of the Danzig Connection mare Shawgatny. He is a homebred of Lantern Hill Farm. Wilkes started him at Ellis Park this summer, where he broke his maiden at second asking in front-running fashion. He then finished third in the grade III Arlington-Washington Futurity and off-the-board in the grade I Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland-both on Polytrack.
But Motor City responded with a big effort in the grade III Iroquois at Churchill, coming from off the pace to win under Borel. It was a totally different type of effort than when he broke his maiden in wire-to-wire fashion.
"In his maiden race he drew the inside and we had to put him in the race early or he would have run the risk of getting shut off at the rail," Wilkes said. "We didn't want to get him in trouble. In the Iroquois he was about six to eight lengths off it. He looks a lot like his dad I think.
"They are both showing they belong. As they go further we'll find out more. They are still young, still determining which way they want to run; closer or from out of it. They will find their strengths as time goes on."
Not coincidentally, Borel, who normally winters at Oaklawn Park, has decided to ride full-time at Gulfstream for the first time this meet. He will be first-call rider for Wilkes for much of the meet, especially with his 2-year-olds.
With either Timely Tally or Motor City, the three-time Derby-winning jockey may have already found his Derby horse.