To the untrained eye, Doug O'Neill was in the midst of a wicked case of deja vu the morning of April 21. He was hiking up the Keeneland horse path behind his leading candidate on the Road to the Kentucky Derby with media on each elbow, asking him if he thinks he can add to his place in history as the rare trainer with multiple triumphs on the first Saturday in May.
The basics are all the same, but the horse bringing the affable conditioner to this point couldn't be more different than the one who was the star of the morning activities at the track this time last year. A year ago, O'Neill was trying to get an unbeaten champion to remain just that in the biggest race of his life. This time around, he has the relaxed look of a man playing with house money—one who might actually have as good a chance as any at hitting the proverbial jackpot May 6.
J. Paul Reddam's Irap, the upstart son of Tiznow who broke his maiden with a three-quarter length win in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2) April 8, put in his first move since that shocker when he worked a mile in 1:44 at Keeneland Friday morning in preparation for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1).
O'Neill is the enviable spot of seeking his second straight Derby triumph and third win in that classic overall, having conditioned I'll Have Another to victory in 2012 and saddled then unbeaten juvenile champion Nyquist to the triumph last year. O'Neill trained Nyquist at Keeneland in the month leading up to his Derby outing and, in the vein of not fixing what is not broken, he is applying some of the same routines to Irap.
As he often did with Nyquist, O'Neill had Irap start off in a two-minute lick before picking it up under jockey Julien Leparoux. The colt remained steady throughout, clocking splits of :15, :29, :41 1/5, :53, 1:06, and 1:30. Leparoux —who will pilot champion Classic Empire for trainer Mark Casse in the Kentucky Derby— was on Irap for the first time since guiding the horse to his Blue Grass upset.
"He felt good. That's what Doug wanted, he did it pretty easy," said Leparoux, who had also worked fellow Derby contender State of Honor for Casse at Churchill Downs earlier Friday morning. "He changed leads today so that's great. He came back with good energy, happy, and Doug is happy so I'm happy too."
O'Neill's typical laid-back self was particularly free and loose as he discussed the colt his brother Dennis picked out for $300,000 at the 2016 Ocala Breeders' Sales' March 2-year-olds in training sale. Irap was without a win in his seven starts prior to the Blue Grass, though he did have runner-up efforts in the Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity (G1) and Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G3).
Neither O'Neill nor Reddam hid their surprise as Irap hit the wire in front in the Blue Grass, besting a field that included previously unbeaten multiple graded stakes winner McCraken. Though he is a half brother to champion sprinter and sire Speightstown , O'Neill said what they did have confidence in was the fact Irap would be one that would improve over a route of ground.
"Being a son of Tiznow and a half to Speightstown, you looked at him as a horse that had a lot of potential and again he's a horse that never gets tired in the mornings," O'Neill said. "If he gets a running start, he can show a little speed, but away from the gate, he's just not a true one-turn kind of horse. We knew he was going to take time and here we are, it's going the right way.
"We go into these big races very optimistic, but realistic as well. We knew he was an outsider going into the Blue Grass but we had faith in him and to see him run the way we hoped he would have run earlier was pretty phenomenal. We figured it was our last chance to have a chance at the big dance with him."
Though there is decidedly less pressure on Team O'Neill this year compared to the scrutiny they faced with Nyquist a year ago, the wide-open nature of this year's 3-year-old class has the trainer quietly gaining confidence that he may just have one peaking at the right moment.
"He's got tremendous amounts of stamina, I think he's been crying out for nine furlongs or farther, and it just took him a while to get those kinds of races going," O'Neill said. "We're just hoping that he can spring off the Blue Grass win and do something special here in a few weeks."
With wet weather slated to move into the area this weekend, several trainers moved their planned works up a day. One of those was Eclipse Award winner Chad Brown, who sent multiple grade 1 winner and Blue Grass runner-up Practical Joke through a four-furlong move in :49 4/5 at Keeneland Friday.
Working in company with Ticonderoga to his outside, Practical Joke was under a good hold as he broke off and clocked splits of :12 3/5 :24 4/5, and :37 2/5, finishing up about a neck in front with a gallop out in 1:01 3/5.
"He looked like he was moving happy and sound, I got him galloping out three-quarters (of a mile) in 1:15 and change so it was a good steady work," Brown said.
Brown added Practical Joke would move over to Churchill April 24 and likely have his final move April 28. The son of Into Mischief captured the Hopeful Stakes (G1) and Champagne Stakes (G1) last fall and has not been worse than third in six career starts.
"He sustained his run in the Blue Grass and ran the best number of his life, and he seems to have come out of it with a good energy level," Brown said. "He's a horse that continues to move forward and has been ultra consistent. He's shown up for us six straight races in a row, and I'm hoping that consistency continues for us in the Derby."
Tapwrit, fifth in the Blue Grass and winner of the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby (G2), also worked in company Friday, covering five furlongs in 1:01 2/5 in preparation for his expected Kentucky Derby run.
"He got hung out pretty wide on the turn and ran kind of a flat race, but he seemed to come out well," trainer Todd Pletcher said of Tapwrit's Blue Grass run. "Hopefully, he trains accordingly and comes back to his Tampa form."