Evaluating Blue Grass Winner Irap’s Derby Chances

Irap had yet to win a race entering the April 8 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, but scored a 31.30-1 upset victory to punch his Kentucky Derby ticket. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Making the Grade, which will run through the 2017 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners or top performers of the big races, usually from the previous weekend, who could impact the Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey) and pedigree.

This week we take a closer look at Irap, winner of the Grade 2, $1 million Toyota Blue Grass Stakes on April 8 at Keeneland Race Course.

Irap sprung the upset of the weekend on the Kentucky Derby trail with a 31.30-1 score in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, which was remarkably his first career victory. Given his previous history of running well in graded stakes, perhaps he should not have been such an afterthought in the Blue Grass. But more importantly for horse racing fans, the key question is: how does Irap fit in the Kentucky Derby puzzle? Let’s take a closer look.


Bay Colt

Sire (Father): Tiznow

Dam (Mother): Silken Cat, by Storm Cat

Owner: Reddam Racing

Breeder: Aaron and Marie Jones (Ky.)

Trainer: Doug O'Neill

 Kentucky Derby Points: 113  (Ranked No. 3)

Ability: Irap became the first maiden — a term in horse racing used to denote a racehorse with no official wins to his/her credit — ever to win the Blue Grass Stakes, but he was well thought of long before that race. Bloodstock agent Dennis O’Neill, brother of Irap’s trainer, Doug O’Neill, plucked the bay son of Tiznow out of the 2016 OBS March sale of 2-year-olds in training for $300,000. He made a nice impression on the racetrack and boasted some pedigree power (which we’ll delve deeper into later) as a half-brother (same dam, different sire) to champion sprinter and elite sire Speightstown.

Irap made his first two starts on the grass, finishing third in his debut then fourth, before Doug O’Neill tested him in the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity on the main track. He held his own by finishing a well-beaten second behind Mastery, who is unbeaten in four races to date but will miss the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands with an injury.

Irap then ran fourth in a maiden special weight race before finishing second again in the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes. In that race, Irap showed that he was very much like the basketball team you often see that plays to the level of its competition. He finished 3 ½ lengths behind winner Royal Mo in the Robert B. Lewis and earned a career-best 101 Equibase Speed Figure.

From there, it looked like Irap was poised to take a step forward on the Derby trail, but he ran a disappointing second as the even-money favorite in the Mine That Bird Derby before a listless performance when fourth by 8 ½ lengths in the Grade 3 Sunland Derby.

Back-to-back uninspiring races at Sunland Park clearly made an impression on bettors at Keeneland on April 8, who lined up to support previously unbeaten multiple graded stakes winner McCraken, Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby winner Tapwrit, Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes runner-up Practical Joke and Gotham Stakes winner J Boys Echo. In fact, the only horse sent off at longer odds was It’s Your Nickel, who was riding a three-race winning streak.

Irap got a dream trip tracking the pace from second, took charge on the far turn and repelled a determined rally from Practical Joke to win by three-quarters of a length.

“He has a ton of ability,” Doug O’Neill said. “The fact he was still a maiden was kind of unfortunate, but he’s always been a talented horse.”

Irap received a 99 Equibase Speed Figure for the win, which puts him more than 10 points behind some of the other leading contenders, even if you use his career-best 101 figure. The Beyer Speed Figure from Daily Racing Form also came back somewhat soft at 93, eight points behind Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets winner Irish War Cry (101).

TimeForm, on the other hand, was much higher on Irap’s Blue Grass. He earned a 122 figure, which was better than Irish War Cry’s Wood Memorial figure (119) and that of Santa Anita Derby winner Gormley (113).

Running style: Irap has consistently raced just off the pace throughout his career. What was different in the Blue Grass was that the pace was significantly slower than his previous five races, and thus Irap had a little more petrol in the gas tank.

Horses who use their speed to gain good position in the Kentucky Derby tend to fare well. In fact, horses who have the lead with an eighth of a mile remaining have won 14 of the last 20 editions of the race. Granted, some of those runners rallied from much farther back, but being in position to take command at the eighth pole is very valuable.

The concern for Irap is that the pace probably will be much faster in the Kentucky Derby than the Blue Grass, and when that has happened in the past, he’s not been as effective as he was in his final Derby prep.

Connections: Owner J. Paul Reddam and trainer Doug O’Neill teamed to win the Kentucky Derby a year ago with champion Nyquist and won the Derby and Preakness Stakes in 2012 with I’ll Have Another.

Reddam is the president of CashCall, a finance lending company, and has raced Thoroughbreds since he claimed his first horse in 1998. Reddam has won three Breeders’ Cup races alone or in partnership: the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in partnership in 2004 with Wilko, the John Deere Breeders’ Cup Turf in 2006 with Red Rocks and the 2015 Juvenile with Nyquist. He also raced alone or in partnership Grade 1 winners Bond Holder, Cash Included, Dancing Edie, Elloluv, Gomo, Great Hunter, Mistical Plan, Pt’s Grey Eagle, Ralis, Sharp Lisa, Square Eddie and Swept Overboard.

Five-time Breeders’ Cup winner Doug O’Neill has amassed 2,147 victories through April 10 and his runners have banked more than $114.1 million in purse earnings. He gained national recognition as the trainer of claimer-turned-multimillionaire Lava Man and also trained two-time Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Goldencents.

Jockey Julien Leparoux is a two-time Eclipse Award winner, taking home the award as champion apprentice in 2006 and outstanding jockey in 2009. He’s winless with nine Kentucky Derby starts, finishing fifth twice, and also is the regular rider for 2016 champion 2-year-old male and Kentucky Derby hopeful Classic Empire. A seven-time Breeders’ Cup winner, Leparoux’s best finish in a Triple Crown race was a second aboard Macho Again in the 2008 Preakness. He has 2,371 career victories through April 10.

Pedigree: From a pedigree perspective, Irap is intriguing to say the least. He’s by 2000 Horse of the Year Tiznow, a two-time Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and a racehorse known to be a tenacious fighter in the stretch. Perhaps we saw a touch of that from Irap when Practical Joke came calling in the Blue Grass stretch.

Many of Tiznow’s best runners have excelled in two-turn races. Da’ Tara won the 2008 Belmont Stakes at 1 ½ miles and Well Armed was the runway winner of the 1 ¼-mile Dubai World Cup in 2009. Other top runners include 2008 Travers Stakes winner Colonel John, Whitney Stakes victors Bullsbay and Tizway, 2005 champion 2-year-old filly Folklore and last year’s Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Tourist among 39 graded stakes winners to date.

On the bottom half of this pedigree, Irap is out of Canadian champion Silken Cat, a stakes winner at 1 1/16 miles who is best known as the dam of 2004 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner and champion sprinter Speightstown. Speightstown ranked in the top 10 on the general sire list every year from 2010 through 2015, topping out at number two in 2013, and ranks 24th this year with most of the big races to come.

Irap’s grandam (maternal grandmother) is Silken Doll, by Chieftain. She was a stakes winner at 1 1/16 miles and produced three stakes winners.

Third dam (maternal great grandmother) Insilca, by Buckpasser, was unraced but was a full sister (same sire, same dam) to Grade 1 winner Turk Passer.

Pedigree won’t be what holds Irap back, nor will his top connections. What concerns me most about Irap’s chances to win the Kentucky Derby is that it feels like he has significant ground to make up on the best of his opposition. Maybe that’s not as big of a hurdle this year when many of the expected top 3-year-olds have fired blanks in big races.

I’m also concerned that he might not be able to finish as well in the Derby as he did in the Blue Grass given his past performances when tracking a faster pace. He did not have the same punch in the stretch in those races, and he will very likely need at least one more gear to shift into in the Derby stretch. 

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