The 93rd running of the Blue Grass Stakes provided a first.
In what was billed as the most talented Blue Grass field in recent years, Irap — a colt who had never won a race — found himself in the winner’s circle at the end.
It was the first time a maiden had won Keeneland’s signature Kentucky Derby prep — Irap was 0-for-7 going into Saturday’s race — and the victory means another Derby contender for trainer Doug O’Neill, who won last year with Nyquist and five years ago with I’ll Have Another.
Irap gives O’Neill an unlikely entrant for the first Saturday in May.
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The 3-year-old son of Tiznow was 0-for-4 as a 2-year-old and finished second to Royal Mo in the Grade III Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita in February before O’Neill sent him to Sunland Park in New Mexico in search of his first victory.
There, he finished second as the even-money favorite in a $100,000 stakes race before coming in fourth — 8 ½ lengths behind Hence — in the Grade III Sunland Derby.
O’Neill told Irap’s owner, Paul Reddam, that the colt still had talent.
They decided to send him to Keeneland for one more shot on the Derby trail.
“He shows promise to where you want to believe he can win a big race like this,” said Jack Sisterson, the assistant trainer for O’Neill. “As a 2-year old last year, he always showed talent. … You don’t want to give up on them too quick.”
His connections didn’t give up on him, but the betting public didn’t give him much of a chance.
Irap went off at 31-1 in a seven-horse field that included McCraken, Tapwrit, Practical Joke and J Boys Echo — all considered to be among the top 10 Kentucky Derby contenders going into Saturday’s race.
Julien Leparoux was aboard Irap for the first time Saturday, after flying into Lexington on Wednesday morning to gallop him around the Keeneland track.
Leparoux was asked after the race if he came away from that ride with “a lot” of confidence in Irap’s prospects for the Blue Grass.
“Well, I can’t say that I had a lot of confidence,” Leparoux deadpanned.
What he did have was a plan.
O’Neill called Leparoux on Saturday morning to go over that plan, and it worked out perfectly.
Wild Shot trainer Rusty Arnold was on record as saying that his colt would be switching up styles and going straight to the front in a race that, on paper, lacked early speed.
O’Neill told Leparoux to let Wild Shot do just that, but he wanted Irap sitting right off of him in the early going.
“At the half-mile pole, ask him,” Sisterson said of O’Neill’s instructions. “Because he’s a bit of a thinker, this horse. If someone comes up on his outside, he might stop. Julien did perfect, and it worked out.”
Irap sat within a length and just outside of Wild Shot through early fractions of :23.79 and :48.34 before making that move at the half-mile pole.
“He told me that when a horse comes outside of him and goes with him, he’s kind of a chicken a little bit,” Leparoux said. “So I didn’t want to have anybody come next to me.”
Irap took over the lead into the turn and was a little more than a length clear of Practical Joke at the top of the stretch.
“He responded very well turning for home, but it was too tough to beat the horse on the lead,” said Joel Rosario, who was aboard Practical Joke. “I thought for a second I was going to get him, but the winner kept on fighting and had another gear.”
Practical Joke finished three-quarters of a length behind Irap, who held him off until the end.
McCraken, making his first start in eight weeks after a minor ankle injury sidelined him from the Derby trail, was also there at the top of the stretch and had room to run, but the 8-5 favorite finished 3 ¾ lengths behind the winner.
Gotham Stakes winner J Boys Echo was fourth, followed by Tampa Bay Derby winner Tapwrit, 32-1 shot It’s Your Nickel and Wild Shot, who faded to last.
Connections for J Boys Echo and Tapwrit suggested they would still send their colts to next month’s Kentucky Derby, despite the off-the-board finishes.
Reddam, who also owned Nyquist and I’ll Have Another, watched the race with O’Neill at Santa Anita Park.
“In the stretch when we saw he actually had a chance, we all just started yelling and screaming,” Reddam said. “It seemed like the wire was taking forever to get there. When he made the lead I thought, ‘That son of a gun is going to hit the board here.’ Then, about the eighth pole, I was thinking, ‘Man we have a chance to win here.’”
Sunday at Keeneland
First post: 1:05 p.m.
Stakes race: Grade 3, $150,000 Adena Springs Beaumont for 3-year-old fillies