The skepticism around Irap was something trainer Doug O'Neill couldn't counter.
Any horse can take advantage of circumstances enough to have one good day. April 8, in his eighth try at attempting to find where the winners go post-race, the big bay son of Tiznow enjoyed a particularly great outing when he broke his maiden in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2), earning himself a place in the first leg of the Triple Crown.
Those who thought Irap was a one-hit wonder that day at Keeneland had ammo in their holster when he finished 18th in the May 6 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1). Rather than try and defend his talents, his connections let Irap state his own case last month when he rebounded with a gritty nose victory in the June 24 Ohio Derby (G3).
It apparently was a convincing enough statement, given he now heads into the July 15 $500,000 Indiana Derby (G3) at Indiana Grand Race Course as the 8-5 morning-line favorite in the 11-horse field.
"Oh, it was huge," O'Neill said of Irap's Ohio Derby win. "With his pedigree and his physical appearance, he sure looked like the type of horse that ran in the Ohio Derby. But having him win that day definitely validated his performance in the Blue Grass. It felt great and I think it showed the kind of talent this horse has."
O'Neill and owner Paul Reddam have been keeping the faith regarding Irap's ability since his debut last October when he ran third going 6 1/2 furlongs on the downhill turf course at Santa Anita Park.
While he didn't win until besting then unbeaten McCraken, multiple grade 1 winner Practical Joke , and eventual Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1) victor Tapwrit in the Blue Grass, Irap kept hinting he was on the cusp of a successful run with admirable performances against the likes of well-regarded Mastery , whom he ran second to in the Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity (G1) Dec. 10.
His Kentucky Derby outing was difficult from the start as he was bumped at the break and never threatened from there. What particularly impressed O'Neill during Irap's Ohio Derby outing was that the half brother to champion Speightstown handled being between horses and showed the determination to keep coming after multiple graded stakes winner Girvin as they hit the wire.
"I'd be lying if I said we were super confident (coming into the Ohio Derby) because when they run like he did in the Kentucky Derby, you just never know what that's going to do to them mentally," O'Neill said. "I think (jockey) Mario (Gutierrez), once he realized mid-race that it wasn't his day, he just took care of him. And I think because of that, he came out of it better than ever.
"I was just so proud of the way he won the Ohio Derby. It was a slow pace, he got into a little bit of traffic trouble and still was able to kind of fight through all that and beat a horse like Girvin. He just kept coming forward and I thought that was super impressive."
Gutierrez, who guided Irap in the Kentucky Derby, will be back aboard the colt Saturday after Julien Leparoux was in the irons for each of his two victories from 10 career starts.
Among those Irap will have to tangle with in the 1 1/16-mile Indiana Derby is Untrapped, third-place finisher in the Ohio Derby. The Steve Asmussen-trained son of Trappe Shot dropped six straight since breaking his maiden at Churchill Downs Nov. 20 but, like Irap, teased of a breakout run with efforts like his runner-up outings in the LeComte Stakes (G3) and Risen Star Stakes (G2) earlier this season.
"I thought he ran solid in the Ohio Derby. I didn't think the race unfolded ideally for him, and he still ran on valiantly," Asmussen said. "I think he's capable of a better trip than he got on multiple occasions this year, and when it comes together, he's going to win a good race."
Wild Shot, another son of Trappe Shot, set the early pace just ahead of Irap in the Blue Grass Stakes before fading to seventh but rebounded with his first graded win in the May 6 Pat Day Mile Stakes Presented by LG&E and KU (G3) at Churchill. The Rusty Arnold-trained colt is looking to regroup once more after finishing seventh last time out in the June 10 Woody Stephens Stakes (G2) at Belmont Park.
One of the more intriguing entrants is Ken McPeek-trained Brockton George, who has been off since his maiden win on the Churchill turf Nov. 26. The Harlan's Holiday colt had a minor tibia issue that forced him to the sidelines, according to McPeek, who believes the dark bay runner to be the best 3-year-old in his barn.
As for Irap, now that he has proven his Blue Grass win wasn't a fluke, he can begin arguing his way back into the ranks with the best of his brethren.
"If we see a big effort on Saturday and he comes out of it well, (a race like the grade 1 Travers Stakes) would be something to talk about for sure," O'Neill said. "But all of our energy is focused on Saturday and we're looking forward to a big race."
Indiana Grand, Saturday, July 15, 2017, Race 9
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Society Beau (KY) James Graham 121 Neil J. Howard 15/1 2 2Irap (KY) Mario Gutierrez 124 Doug F. O'Neill 8/5 3 3Wild Shot (KY) Corey J. Lanerie 124 George R. Arnold, II 8/1 4 4Brockton George (FL) Manoel R. Cruz 117 Kenneth G. McPeek 15/1 5 5Hollywood Handsome (KY) Florent Geroux 121 Dallas Stewart 8/1 6 6Han Sense (IA) Joe Bravo 117 Michael J. Maker 12/1 7 7Top Credentials (KY) Rodney A. Prescott 117 James T. Spicer 30/1 8 8Awesome Saturday (KY) Brian Joseph Hernandez, Jr. 121 W. Bret Calhoun 8/1 9 9Untrapped (KY) Ricardo Santana, Jr. 117 Steven M. Asmussen 6/1 10 10Colonelsdarktemper (KY) Jon Kenton Court 117 William H. Fires 10/1 11 11Watch Me Whip (KY) Robby Albarado 117 Dale L. Romans 10/1
Indiana Grand, Saturday, July 15, 2017, Race 9