The Road to the Kentucky Derby has its feel-good story of the year.
Who wouldn't root for Irish War Cry—a New Jersey-bred of all creatures—bred and raced by grande dame Isabelle de Tomaso, trained by affable expat Graham Motion, ridden by comebacking jockey Rajiv Maragh?
And which flaming chestnut son of Curlin will show up at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May—the colt who jumped up to win the Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (G2), who ran a lackluster seventh in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2), or who put doubters to rest April 8 with a 3 1/2-length victory April 8 in the $750,000 Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G2)?
"I don't know what happened last time. It's just a complete puzzle to me," Motion said. "(But) it's extremely gratifying to get this horse back on track. That was huge. I don't remember having a situation like this, when I felt so much was on the line."
Irish War Cry rebounded from his head-scratching performance last time out, clearing pacesetter Battalion Runner after pressing a :23.50 opening quarter and a :47.34 half in Aqueduct Racetrack's final prep for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1). On even terms as three-quarters went in 1:11.83, he took over to lead the field into the stretch and kicked away through a 1:37.67 mile.
"I think Rajiv must have felt like he had a lot of horse, because he moved to the leaders so confidently," Motion said. "He probably could have waited a little longer if he had needed to. It seemed like he had a lot of horse. I think the equipment change (to a figure-eight bridle) probably helped. It gives you a little more control. But he had the perfect trip today."
Maragh, who won the 2014 Wood Memorial on Wicked Strong , recovered from severe injuries suffered in a July 2015 spill to ride at the top level again.
"When I was down and out, these are the days I dreamed about," the jockey said. "These are the days that made me feel I wanted to ride. You never know if you'll get them again after being off so long. I can't be more thankful for everyone who has been there for my recovery and supporting me now that I'm back. I've never been so emotional after a race in my life."
"I think it's so good that Rajiv came to the barn and has been on him the last few mornings to see how he is," said Motion, who won the Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom in 2011 and has not been back since a fourth with Went the Day Well in 2012. "He's not a difficult horse. He's not a rank horse. He's a very classy horse. We both thought it was a good idea for Rajiv to get on him in the mornings. I thought he won pretty comfortably and it doesn't seem like distance of the Derby will be an issue."
Irish War Cry finished 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.91 and was striding out easily at the end. He improved his record to four wins from five starts, for earnings of $699,460. The last New Jersey-bred to run in the Kentucky Derby was Dance Floor, who ran third in 1992.
"He was sharp into the first turn," Maragh said. "There was a little pace in front of him, which is what we were hoping for to get in a good tracking positon. He was always in a smooth rhythm. He relaxed real easily. He did everything I wanted him to do without a lot of effort. He did it all in rhythm. He wasn't rank at all. He settled beautifully.
"By getting on him in the mornings, I didn't think I'd have a hard time getting him to settle, because he goes so easy and comfortable. We ran good together today."
Irish War Cry returned $9, $4.70, and $3.20 as the 7-2 choice in a field of eight. Battalion Runner, co-favored at 2-1 with Cloud Computing, paid $3.60 and $2.50. Cloud Computing paid $2.60 to show. The order of finish was completed by True Timber, Bonus Points, Glennrichment, Mo Town, and Stretch's Stone.
Irish War Cry is out of the Polish Numbers mare Irish Sovereign. He looks to join Regret in 1915 and Cavalcade in 1934 as just the third New Jersey-bred to win the Kentucky Derby.