The relative quiet surroundings of Keeneland's Barn 43 provided the perfect setting for the connections of Irap the morning of April 9 as they went about digesting what the son of Tiznow pulled off the evening before.
Dismissed at odds of 31-1, Irap became the first horse to ever break his maiden in the $1 million Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2) when he held off multiple grade 1 winner Practical Joke to win the 1 1/8-mile prep by three-quarters of a length April 8. J. Paul Reddam's upstart colt was reported to be in good order Sunday morning, looking the none the worse for wear after earning his first triumph in eight career starts.
"He looks good, he ate everything," said Jack Sisterson, former longtime assistant to trainer Doug O'Neill. "Looking at his form, even though he was a maiden he had run some good races.
"At the eighth pole, knowing that he has a tendency to not want to win, we were just kind of like 'hold on, don't quit now, don't quit now.' Nothing else was really coming. (Runner-up) Practical Joke was looming up but he wasn't really kicking clear, so I was like 'this horse is going to hold on and win.' He shocked us all."
Sisterson said plans call for Irap to remain at Keeneland to prep for his Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) run. It's a system that worked well for his former boss a year ago as the same connections trained champion Nyquist at Keeneland in the month leading up to his triumph in the first leg of the Triple Crown.
"He'll be on the Nyquist routine," Sisterson laughed. "The great thing about Keeneland is: if the weather is bad, you have the all-weather (training) track. And everyone horse we've shipped in here seems to love it."
Irap entered the Blue Grass off a fourth-place finish in the March 26 Sunland Derby (G3) and had run second to Royal Mo during his seasonal bow in the Feb. 4 Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G3) at Santa Anita Park.
Given the level of parity on this year's Road to the Kentucky Derby, trainer Chad Brown was feeling particularly encouraged by Practical Joke's runner-up effort in the Blue Grass. Though the son of Into Mischief still has yet to win around two turns, he did put in a sustained run Saturday and finished three lengths clear of previously unbeaten McCraken in third.
"He ran terrific," Brown said. "I was encouraged that for the first time to see him in a two-turn ran to see him with a sustained run, making up ground in the lane and not losing ground. It gives me some optimism with him to keep going forward towards the Derby."
Prior to the Blue Grass, Brown had expressed concern about Practical Joke's potential distance limitations. With McCraken suffering his first career loss and no other clear leader in the 3-year-old male ranks, Brown feels Practical Joke has earned the right to see how far his class can carry him May 6.
"I think right now, this seems like a division that doesn't have a clear leader," Brown said. "There are definitely a handful of horses that deserve top consideration...but there is not a lot between that handful of horses and the rest. So, maybe this is a year that we want to take a shot because we have a horse that has the points, and he did sustain his run yesterday."
Aron Wellman of Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners said Sunday that Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby (G2) winner Tapwrit was in good order after his fifth-place run in the Blue Grass. Wellman added they would montior the son of Tapit in the next few days and, should all go well, would likely ship the colt to Churchill Downs in about a week.
"Yesterday's result was deflating, but (trainer) Todd (Pletcher) and the team believe a lot of it was circumstantial and we aren't overreacting or panicking," said Wellman, whose Eclipse Thoroughbreds owns Tapwrit along with Bridlewood Farm and Robert LaPenta. "We will evaluate how he acts and trains over the surface (at Churchill) and proceed accordingly."