By Ron Wilson, director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University.
It’s the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. As the beautiful thoroughbreds race down in the track in the historic run for the roses, owners and fans cheer from the stands. In 2017, one of those owners was from rural Kansas. In fact, her Derby horse bears the name of a rural Kansas town.
Janis Whitham is the owner of this wonderful Kentucky Derby horse. Janis’s son Clay Whitham told us this remarkable story.
Janis grew up at Scott City. She met and married Frank Whitham who worked in farming, cattle feeding, and banking. The Whithams moved to Leoti and had five children.
In 1993, Frank Whitham was tragically killed in a private plane crash in western Kansas. Janis continued the family’s interest in horses.
“My mom is a horse lover,” Clay said. “My parents owned quarter horses in the 1960s, when a lot of county fairs had quarter horse races.” Their interest in racing led them to become interested in thoroughbreds. In the 1970s, the Whithams bought their first thoroughbreds, and they have developed their line of racehorses over time.
“Mom never wavered,” Clay said. “She has kept our horse activity going through the years.”
Clay got a double major from K-State in accounting and finance, and later got a master’s degree from K-State. He worked in business and in banking, and is now president of Frontier Bank in Lamar, Colorado.
“Mom still manages the horse breeding,” Clay said. “She looks at the pedigrees, looks at the traits, and picks the breeding lines we want.” The Whithams constantly work to improve their bloodlines. The horses are boarded in the heart of racehorse country in Kentucky.
“I think Mom gets as much enjoyment in raising the mares and foals as she does in racing them,” Clay said. “It is always fun to see the new foals and then to see how they grow.”
Another part of Janis’ job was to name the horses. In honor of her state, she has chosen to use Kansas place names. For example, a few years ago, the Whithams raised an excellent bay horse they named Fort Larned. That horse won three races, including the prestigious Breeders Cup in 2012.
In 2013, another outstanding foal surfaced among the high quality colts produced by the Whithams. Janis chose to name this colt McCracken after a rural town in Rush County. McCracken is a community of 209 people. Now, that’s rural.
However, a typo occurred somewhere in the process of submitting the horse name to the Jockey Club online and the last letter “c” was dropped from the name. As a result, the official name assigned to the horse was McCraken – M-C-C-R-A-K-E-N.
Whatever the name, this was one amazing horse. The Whithams used the same trainer and jockey they had used to win the Breeders Cup, and the horse developed quickly. He was described as a “closer,” because he tended to finish strong. The bay horse had four starts as a racehorse and won every race. His record was so successful that he qualified for the Kentucky Derby.
In the 20-horse field of the 2017 Kentucky Derby, McCraken finished eighth. Muddy conditions on the rain-soaked track probably did not help his performance, but he ran well.
“It was a neat experience,” Clay Whitham said. “The Kentucky Derby is the one event in horse racing that everybody knows. With grandkids and everybody, we had about 50 people there. Having a horse in there made you nervous, but it was enjoyable just to soak it in.”
It must have been especially rewarding to know that this was a home-bred horse. In other words, rather than simply buying a top horse at an auction somewhere, the Whithams bred and raised McCraken themselves.
It’s time to leave the Kentucky Derby, where a horse owner from rural Kansas saw her horse finish in the upper half of the world’s most famous horse race. We commend Janis, Clay and all the Whitham family for making a difference with homegrown equine entrepreneurship. By selecting names from her home state, Janis is making rural Kansas a winner.