In the context of the situation, it was easy to categorize the words Joe Sharp was doling out this past week as typical trainer speak.
The refrain that a horse "couldn't be doing any better" is a common one conditioners like to toss out in the days leading up to a major test. So even when Sharp effused during a national teleconference that Brad Grady's multiple graded stakes winner Girvin was training in a manner he had never seen heading into the July 30 Betfair.com Haskell Invitational Stakes (G1), others were considered more favorable in the depth-laden edition of the 1 1/8-mile test.
When the photo finish was made official in Monmouth Park's signature race Sunday, what Sharp's eyes were telling him in recent weeks was validated for all to witness.
The ever-evolving complexion of this year's 3-year-old male division finally ended up cycling back to one of its earlier standouts, as Girvin advanced from last in the seven-horse field and came with a determined surge in tandem with Practical Joke down the middle of the stretch to nip McCraken by a nose at the wire in the Haskell to earn the first grade 1 victory for himself and his connections.
In one of the more thrilling stretch drives seen in recent editions on the Jersey Shore, Girvin repaid his connections' unwavering commitment to what he could achieve. In April, the son of Tale of Ekati was heralded for his quick ascent up the 3-year-ranks, after wins in the Risen Star Stakes (G2) and the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby (G2).
While his talent was never in question, his soundness became a talking point leading up to the May 6 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1), as he was plagued by a quarter crack in his right front that limited him to just two timed workouts between his Louisiana Derby victory and eventual 13th-place finish on the first Saturday in May.
That he returned from his classic try and was beaten just a nose by multiple graded winner Irap in the June 24 Ohio Derby (G3) told Sharp he was accurate to think Girvin wasn't that far off in his conditioning.
"It feels great. It was the way it was supposed to be," Sharp said. "It was a great team effort—the right horse, the right owners. ... It means a lot. At the quarter pole it looked like he was kind of all in, and I didn't know if he was going to make up the ground he needed to. At about the eighth pole, it looked like he had a shot.
"It's one of those things, where my career seems to have been a whirlwind thus far but ... everything seems to be falling into place."
Sent off at 9-1 odds in the field, Girvin showed off his versatility during his top-level breakthrough. While he did much of the dirty work on the front end in the Ohio Derby, the dark bay colt settled in hand under jockey Robby Albarado and trailed the field by nine lengths as Battle of Midway and Timeline prompted each other through opening fractions of :23.93 and :47.34, with Irish War Cry racing just outside off of those two in third.
As the front pack neared the far turn, Girvin began to advance between horses, along with McCraken to his outside, but the latter got the jump. McCraken made a four-wide bid around the turn to join the top trio.
"Turning for home he put in a huge run and I thought we might have it, but he just couldn't hold off that other horse," said Brian Hernandez Jr., jockey for McCraken.
When McCraken went by Irish War Cry at the head of the lane, the first grade 1 win of his career seemed to be there for the taking. The momentum and one-length advantage the son of Ghostzapper held in midstretch got swallowed up late, however, as Albarado—who was aboard Girvin for the first time—had his mount moving stride for stride with Practical Joke. The winner hit the wire in 1:48.35 to cue an emotional celebration from his trainer and family.
"McCraken got the jump on me and kept me inside, but my horse never lost momentum, so I wasn't concerned," Albarado said. "He's really coming into his own right now. I worked him last week up at the Spa and he was sharp. He showed that today. When he got in the clear in the stretch he just kept coming and coming. I was so impressed with what he did today and I think he's just going to get better and better."
Multiple grade 1 winner Practical Joke, who was seeking his first win around two turns, was a half-length back in third, with Irish War Cry fourth. Timeline, sent off as the 9-5 favorite, finished fifth to suffer his first loss, while fellow graded winners Battle of Midway and Hence rounded out the order of finish.
"Timeline missed the break a bit and that got him out of sorts," said Chad Brown, who trains both Timeline and Practical Joke. "He rushed up and got in between horses. That just wasn't the trip we wanted and unfortunately that did him in. Practical Joke ran very well. He was right there at the wire in a three-way photo. He gave it his all."
Bred by Bob Austin and John Witte, Girvin earned an automatic berth with his Haskell triumph Sunday to the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) as part of the Breeders' Cup Challenge "Win and You're In" program. He improved his earnings to $1,574,400, with a start in the Aug. 26 Travers Stakes (G1) at Saratoga Race Course his likely next stop, according to Sharp.
"At this point, he has done everything we have asked him to do," Sharp said. "With the win and you're in to the Classic, the question with that is can he get the mile and a quarter. It would be most fitting based on his running style."
Girvin was purchased by Grand Oaks for $130,000 out of the Legacy Bloodstock consignment from the 2015 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky Fall yearling sale and is out of the Malibu Moon mare Catch the Moon.