Not unlike an oenophile who travels the world seeking out the finest wines, Dennis O'Neill scouts Thoroughbred auctions in search of top racing prospects.
His keen eye has yielded two Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) winners—I'll Have Another and Nyquist —and another of his sale finds, Irap, is en route to Churchill Downs following a stunning upset victory in the April 8 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2).
Trained by Doug O'Neill, Dennis' brother, for Reddam Racing, Irap was winless in seven starts previous to the Blue Grass and became the first 3-year-old to break their maiden in the 1 1/8-mile Derby prep. With the victory at 31-1 odds over two-time grade 1 winner Practical Joke and previously undefeated McCraken, Irap moved to third on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 113 points.
A 3-year-old son of Tiznow , Irap is the last foal produced from the late Canadian champion Silken Cat, a Storm Cat mare who also produced Speightstown , the champion sprinter who was among the leading sires of 2012-13.
Initially sent through the sales ring at Keeneland by Taylor Made Sales Agency, Irap went unsold on a final bid of $140,000 and was then a private sale to Brad Grady’s Grand Oaks for $100,000. Grady now races Girvin, the two-time grade 2 winner who tops the Derby points standings with 150.
Grand Oaks then sent the colt to the 2016 Ocala Breeders' Sales Co.'s March 2-year-olds in training sale under the care of Bobby Dodd and was bought by Dennis for $300,000.
"I had told Paul he was a project," Dennis recalled of his advice to owner J. Paul Reddam. "He was a big, long horse we would need to wait on. But with his pedigree, if he worked out, he would probably be a great buy."
Initially Irap's connections thought they had a grass horse on their hands and the colt finished third and fourth, respectively, on turf in Southern California.
"We tried to make him a turf horse," Dennis said. "It's taken him awhile to catch on."
In his first start on dirt and at a distance, Irap showed an inclination for the surface, finishing second in the grade 1 Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity at 1 1/16 miles. Dropped back in class, the colt ran fourth in a maiden special weight at Santa Anita Park. In the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G3), the colt pressed the pace from second, the place in which he finished.
Irap was then shipped to New Mexico's Sunland Park, where he finished second in the Mine That Bird Derby as the even-money favorite before running third in the Sunland Derby (G3).
Dodd said Irap was a project from the time he and Grady bought the colt until they sold him to Dennis.
"He was really backwards when we bought him as a yearling, but I thought he was a good buy," the Florida horseman said. "He had all the parts, but he was out of sorts. He just kind of blossomed and came around. It concerned me some that his dam was older and the only horse she had was Speightstown, and some buyers shy away from 2-year-olds out of older mares."
Dodd said he is pleased with how Irap has turned out for Reddam and the O'Neills, and that he and Grady are looking forward to the weeks leading up to the Derby.
"Everything is just jelling and coming together," Dodd said. "It's been a good year so far."