Even through the raspiness that overtook his voice as he tried to articulate the stunner of a contender he had just unleashed on the Triple Crown trail, trainer Joe Sharp's wonderment over his upstart charge Girvin was as clear as the margin of victory the son of Tale of Ekati had just registered in the Feb. 25 Risen Star Stakes (G2).
Horses three starts into their career trying dirt for just the second time aren't supposed to end up atop the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard ahead juvenile champions and multiple graded stakes victors. They aren't supposed to turn more accomplished rivals into also-rans— a memo Girvin clearly didn't get as he drew clear of his challengers and straight into the mix of the wonderfully shifting picture that is this season's 3-year-old male class.
The 1 1/16-mile Risen Star Stakes became an unlikely coming out party for Brad Grady's Girvin as the Sharp-trainee had everyone taking notice of his turn of foot when he captured the $400,000 test by two lengths over Untrapped at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots. He earned 50 qualifying points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, vaulting to the top of the qualifying list.
Sharp has experience with the first leg of the Triple Crown as a former assistant to trainer Mike Maker. He could lead over his first starter in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) on his own this May, should Girvin's progress keep up at its current rate.
The dark bay colt didn't debut until Dec. 16, winning a six-furlong maiden test at Fair Grounds by a head. He then made his seasonal bow on the turf, running second in the one-mile Keith Gee Memorial Overnight Stakes at the New Orleans track Feb. 4, and was stepping into graded stakes company for the first time against a Risen Star field that included Remsen Stakes (G2) winner Mo Town and Lecomte Stakes (G3) victor Guest Suite.
"It's unbelievable, I lost my voice," Sharp said. "We believed in this horse all along, but you never know how good they are until you stack them up against the competition. We had all the confidence in the world in (jockey) Brian (Hernandez, Jr.). But we're in shock."
Sent off at 8-1 odds in the 11-horse field, Girvin broke from the inside post and rode that ground-saving starting point nearly all the way to his upset result.
As expected, Local Hero established himself as the clear early speed, opening up by six lengths at one point down the backstretch while cutting fractions of :23.70 and :47.02 under Florent Geroux. Hernandez, meanwhile, had Girvin hugging the rail in fifth as 3-2 race favorite Mo Town stalked in second with Untrapped looming just behind.
Local Hero still held a clear advantage at the head of the lane, but Girvin had crept his way into contention before angling out under left-handed urging. When Hernandez switched to the right-handed stick, he got another level of response from his mount, who hit the wire in 1:43.08 over a track rated fast.
"Joe and the team did a great job knowing where they needed to be with this horse," said Hernandez, who is also the regular rider of multiple graded stakes winner and leading sophomore contender McCraken. "But we have to give all the credit to Girvin. He traveled like a true professional and in just his third career start to do what he did today proves what a special horse he is.
"From here on, the races will get tougher but he's the right kind of horse. He has a lot of athletic ability and he looks like he'll keep getting better and better."
As Girvin was establishing himself as a new force in the classic ranks, a couple prior standouts had some of their luster dimmed. Guest Suite, who won the Lecomte by 1 1/4 lengths over Untrapped, came home fourth behind Local Hero, who faded to third. Mo Town had every chance to make a run in his seasonal bow but had no response in the lane and ended up fifth, just getting his nose down over Shareholder Value.
“I thought (Mo Town) broke well and got himself into position and just wasn’t able to maintain it,” trainer Tony Dutrow said. “Johnny’s comments were that the horse was struggling over the surface and never got ahold of it. He felt strongly that it was a surface Mo Town didn’t care for. So, we will see if he was right or not. No disrespect to Fair Grounds’ surface—it’s one of the reasons we came—it just didn’t work out for him today.”
Bred by Bob Austin and John Witte out of the Malibu Moon mare Catch the Moon, Girvin paid $18.20, $8.60 and $5.80 across the board and improved his earnings to $274,400. He was a $130,000 purchase by Grand Oaks from the Legacy Bloodstock consignment to the 2015 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky fall yearling sale.
"He will stay here and probably run in the Louisiana Derby," Sharp said. "We’ll let him tell us, but that’s my inclination.”