Maiden no more

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It’s difficult to imagine a more perfect weather scenario for a day of racing than what Central Kentucky served up Saturday afternoon at Keeneland Race Course, where a maiden named Irap delivered a massive upset in one of the premier Kentucky Derby prep races in front of a big crowd soaking up the blue skies, warm weather, loud cheers and big upsets.

Irap scored at 31-1 in the $1 million Toyota Blue Grass in front of 32,610, defeating Practical Joke by three-quarters of a length with favored McCraken another 3 lengths back in third.

For jockey Julien Leparoux, trainer Doug O’Neill and assistant trainer Jack Sisterson, it was difficult to imagine a more perfect trip for their ambitiously placed 3-year-old son of Tiznow. Sisterson watched the replay of Irap’s Blue Grass win in the post-race press conference and discussed the race move-by-move, making it look and sound so easy.

“From the start, Doug told Julien, ‘he’s going to show speed from the gate,’ which he did,” Sisterson said. “Julien said that the main competition for the lead was going to be (Wild Shot), who went to the lead first. And Doug said to Julien that if the 5 goes, just to sit in behind, and going into the first turn, Julien did that perfectly.

“We relaxed in second and Julien had a good hold on him. Doug said with this horse that if someone comes up on his outside, he’s not a quitter but he just starts thinking and Julien did perfect just to keep enough distance between Irap and the third horse (McCraken).”

Sisterson, sitting in the small media room just outside the Keeneland tunnel, continued to paint the picture of Irap’s perfect trip.

“Doug said, going into the race, if there’s any chance, to try and get 48 seconds for the half, which he did,” Sisterson said. “He said sort of at the half-mile pole to start asking him, which Julien did and he got to the lead. Doug also said to try and get some separation once you get him to the lead and once you start getting into the stretch. Julien did everything right; you couldn’t have asked for a better ride. It was Doug and the Reddams that came up with that plan. They had talked briefly with Julien earlier in the week and basically did everything they set out to do and it went perfectly. It was a brilliant ride by Julien.”

Irap, owned by the Reddam Racing operation of J. Paul and Zillah Reddam that won the Kentucky Derby last year with champion Nyquist, held off a late charge from Chad Brown-trained Practical Joke in the stretch to win in 1:50.39. McCraken, the 8-5 favorite in the field of seven, suffered his first defeat in five starts, while Gotham winner J Boys Echo was fourth and Tapwrit was fifth as the 2-1 second choice.

Irap came close in several stakes races in the past, placing second in the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity at Los Alamitos in December and second in the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes this year at Santa Anita Park. Impressive as it may be for Irap to break his maiden in a seven-figure Derby prep, it’s safe to assume the colt would have won a race before the Blue Grass had he been racing in maiden company rather than in stakes company.

“It’s great (for a horse to break his maiden) in the Blue Grass,” Leparoux said. “The plan was to be sitting second. He was very relaxed. We had the trip that we wanted. He (O’Neill) wanted me to start going at the half-mile pole. He said if a horse came up to him, he might (pull back) back a little.

“(In the stretch) I felt confident but I knew they were coming. He never gave up. I knew he was going to run good. He runs good every race. We talked and we had the perfect trip. It came to reality.”

O’Neill, who trained Nyquist and also 2012 Kentucky Derby winner I’ll Have Another for the Reddams, said that Irap’s next start will be in the 143rd edition of the Louisville classic.

Sisterson predicted that jockey Mario Gutierrez, who won both Derbies for O’Neill and the Reddams, would probably get the mount for Irap at Churchill, as Leparoux most likely will ride 2016 champion 2-year-old male and Arkansas Derby contender Classic Empire.

“He’ll obviously stay here at Keeneland like Nyquist did last year,” Sisterson said of Irap’s plans moving forward in the weeks leading up to the Derby. “(Keeneland was) really accommodating to us with Nyquist here. I really believe horses thrive here at Keeneland.”

Irap’s victory made him the fifth horse of the seven in Saturday’s Blue Grass field to make the top 20 Kentucky Derby points earners with just two more qualifying races remaining. Irap’s point total sits at 113, then Practical Joke (74), J Boys Echo (63), Tapwrit (54), and McCraken (40). There is a pretty decent chance all five will appear at Churchill Downs, if healthy, in the 20-horse field for the Derby.