Why mess with success?
So says Doug O’Neill, the California-based trainer who won his second Kentucky Derby last year by rejecting the conventional wisdom that a Derby horse must train at Churchill Downs and working Nyquist at Keeneland instead.
“Horsey heaven,” O’Neill called it Friday morning as he was making the long walk from Keeneland’s main track up the hill to Barn 46.
That’s because O’Neill is back. Unlike last year with the then-unbeaten Nyquist, he doesn’t have the Derby favorite. This year, he has the surprising Irap, who on April 8 at odds of 31-1 became the first maiden to win the $1 million Toyota Blue Grass Stakes.
“We go into these big races very optimistic but realistic, as well,” said O’Neill after watching Irap put in his first work on Friday since winning the Blue Grass. “We knew he was an outsider going into the Blue Grass. We had faith in him and to see him run the way we hoped he had run earlier was pretty phenomenal.”
Bred by Aaron and Marie Jones and purchased by Paul Reddam at the 2015 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, the son of Tiznow had not run poorly in previous starts. Irap was second in the Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity last year, second in the Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita in February and fourth in last month’s Sunland Derby. In seven starts, he had never hit the finish line first, however.
“We figured this was his last chance,” O’Neill said. “He came out of the Sunland Park like had never even run. We figured this was his last chance to have a chance (to make the Kentucky Derby) so we’d give it a roll. And that’s all credit to Paul. When his horses are doing good, he likes to take a chance.”
O’Neill thought he might have a second Derby horse in Iliad, who won the San Vicente on Feb. 12 in his first time out for O’Neill after owner Kaleem Shah split with trainer Bob Baffert. After finishing second to the now-injured Mastery in the San Felipe, Iliad was the favorite for the Santa Anita Derby. In fact, O’Neill opted to skip attending the Blue Grass and remain in California only to watch Iliad run a disappointing fifth.
“Irap had won and Iliad was an hour or two later,” O’Neill said. “Obviously I was getting a little cocky thinking, gee, I might have two in there because I really thought Iliad would run huge that day. He ran good. Not huge, but he ran good.”
Iliad could run in the Pat Day Mile on Derby Day or be held back for the Preakness.
“He’s a really special individual,” O’Neill said. “He’s got a lot of natural ability that horse.”
The 48-year-old O’Neill has a chance to do something special. Only six trainers have won three or more Kentucky Derbys. The legendary Ben Jones won six as the trainer for Calumet Farm. Harold J. “Derby Dick” Thompson, D. Wayne Lukas and Baffert each own four victories. James Fitzsimmons and Max Hirsch won three Kentucky Derbys.
“No, not really,” said O’Neill when asked if he had thought about what it would mean to join such company. “Just the thought of winning another is pretty amazing and overwhelming to think about it, really. The main exciting thing is being back here and having a chance.”
For now, here means Keeneland. O’Neill will be traveling back and forth from California — he plans to visit Nyquist at Jonabell Farm next week — but Irap will stay and work at Keeneland.
“I just love the options here that Keeneland offers,” said O’Neill, pointing to the Polytrack training track that can be used during bad weather. “It’s phenomenal and the horses do so well here.”
Nyquist certainly did last year.
6:46 p.m. Saturday, May 6, at Churchill Downs in Louisville (NBC-18)
Kentucky Derby leaderboard
Irish War Cry
J Boys Echo
State of Honor
Fast and Accurate
Battle of Midway
Lookin At Lee