It's been that kind of year on the 2017 Road to the Kentucky Derby.
It's been the kind of year that has seen every well-regarded contender take some kind of hit, physical or otherwise, on that arduous march toward May 6. It's been the kind of season where the moment one thought they were getting a handle on what this year's crop of 3-year-olds were capable of, some new wrench would be tossed into the mix.
The connections of Irap were realistic on where they thought the son of Tiznow fit in the sophomore mix. At the top of the stretch in the $1 million Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2), owner Paul Reddam was among the many who realized they better start adjusting expectations upward where the half brother to champion and sire Speightstown is concerned.
In a fitting latest twist to the Triple Crown trail, 31-1 shot Irap became the first horse ever to break his maiden in the Blue Grass Stakes when he took command approaching the final turn and turned back multiple grade 1 winner Practical Joke in the lane to win Keeneland's signature 1 1/8-mile prep race by three-quarters of a length. Previously unbeaten McCraken came home third.
Of all the upstart contenders that have thrown their name into the hat for a spot in the gate for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1), Irap may be the most unlikely yet. The bay colt was winless in seven starts heading into Saturday's test and came into the race off a fourth-place finish in the March 26 Sunland Derby (G3).
In addition to being trained by two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Doug O'Neill, the faith that Irap could step forward came from his runner-up efforts behind Royal Mo in the Feb. 4 Robert B. Lewis (G3) and to Mastery in the Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity (G1) last December. Even his own people didn't dare say they expected what they got Saturday— a colt who is now third overall on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 113 qualifying points.
"When he made the lead I thought, 'that SOB is going to hit the board here,'" Reddam told TVG in an interview after he watched the Blue Grass from Santa Anita Park. "Then, about the eighth pole, I was thinking, 'Man, we have a chance to win here,' because McCraken had backed out of it and a couple other horses didn't fire for whatever reason. I really have got to say, Doug did a fantastic job—he and his team. It's just fantastic feeling to win when you don't think you're going to."
Jockey Julien Leparoux—who is also the regular rider for reigning juvenile champion Classic Empire— first got acquainted with Irap when he galloped the colt at Keeneland the morning of April 5. Sensing that his new mount was not the rank sort, Leparoux knew he could get away with asking Irap for run right out of the gate, a strategy that ending up working to perfection.
With Rusty Arnold trainee Wild Shot taking up his expected role as pacesetter, Irap stalked in second with McCraken a close-up third as the early fractions went in :23.79 and :48.34 over a track rated fast. Leaving the half-mile mark, Leparoux moved Irap up to Wild Shot's neck before taking over for good coming into the final turn.
"I can't say I had a lot of confidence (in Irap). But when you look at his races, he was running good," Leparoux said. "It was a tough field today and what he did was great. I knew he wasn't going to be rank, so I knew leaving from the gate I could ask him for a little bit more. The plan worked perfect.
"The only thing I can say is, all the races he was second in, they were good races. He runs good almost every race he ran. I was expecting them to come at me (in the stretch) really, but they didn't."
The reality of what was about to happen hit at the top of the Keeneland stretch, as Irap opened up a two-length advantage with 8-5 favorite McCraken still trying to get his best run going on the outside and Practical Joke trying to disprove the distance limitations many had about the son of Into Mischief .
The Chad Brown-trained Practical Joke bravely ran on to threaten Irap in the final furlong.
"He showed a lot of heart. I was disappointed with the trip, but that was due to the (outside) post," Brown said. "The winner really ran a courageous race. He really ran fantastic and I thought my horse did, too. I just wish we could have been posted a little bit better. Nothing is off the table (as far as the Kentucky Derby)."
It was all moot, however, as Irap hit the wire in 1:50.39, with Practical Joke three lengths in front of McCraken.
"He faced a little adversity today and he didn't fold it in for me," said Ian Wilkes, trainer of McCraken, who won the Feb. 11 Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) in his seasonal debut and is three-for-three over the Churchill Downs surface. "He won blowing today. He needed that race and I should get some improvement off of this, no problem.
"If you're always focused on trying to win, win, win, you're going backwards. He showed me a little character today and a little fight, and that's what you need. You get in the Derby field with 20 horses. No one is going to hand it to you."
Gotham Stakes (G3) winner J Boys Echo finished fourth in the seven-horse field, with Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby (G2) winner Tapwrit fifth. It's Your Nickel and Wild Shot completed the order of finish.
Irap paid out $64.60, $22.40, and $6.80 across the board. Bred by Aaron and Marie Jones, he now has $772,600 in earnings. He was purchased by Dennis O'Neill for $300,000 at the 2016 Ocala Breeders' Sales Co.'s March 2-year-olds in training sale.
"He's a son of Tiznow, and he has a ton of ability. The fact he was still a maiden was kind of unfortunate, but he's always been a talented horse," Doug O'Neill said from California. "Julien gave him a great ride. Unbelievable."