This is Part 1 of 5 in a series about Irap who will start in the Kentucky Derby on May 6.
Part 1: Dug in, Held Gamely
When the horses loaded into the starting gates for the 93rd running of the Bluegrass Stakes, the horse in the sixth slot hadn’t warranted much attention. Irap, coming off a fourth-place finish in the Grade-3 Sunland Derby just 13 days before, was the next-to-last choice among seven horses. In five previous attempts, he’d failed to win a single race and, since the inception of the Bluegrass Stakes in 1937, no horse had ever won this Kentucky Derby prep race without at least one win to his name.
It didn’t help Irap’s case that he was facing off against the leading contender for the Kentucky Derby. McCraken, the undefeated son of Hall of Famer Ghostzapper, had already won two graded stakes races and was the top choice in this race as well as a slight favorite for the Kentucky Derby.
But, soon after the starting gates flew open, there was Irap stalking the pace in perfect position. When the horses exited the near turn and headed down the back stretch, Irap was still looking comfortable in the second position. But that wouldn’t hold, right? He went off at odds of 31-to-1 and racing fans have seen plenty of longshots who have run near the front but finished near the back. Then the horses entered the far turn and Irap moved into the lead like a horse who, . . . well, a horse who had actually won a race before. He looked strong and capable. Winning horses make moves like this.
In the stretch, Irap held the lead but seemed to tire. He may have slowed but he didn’t fade. Practical Joke and McCraken came for him, but they didn’t catch him.
The race was broadcast on NBC Sports Network and the announcers weren’t impressed with Irap’s race. Longtime horse racing analyst Randy Moss said Irap looked so tired in the stretch that he was looking for a place to lie down. That’s a funny line, to be sure, but is it true? The notes on the chart that catalog the race results describe Irap’s stretch run differently. “Dug in. Held gamely,” the chart says. In other words, Irap made a brave effort down the stretch to win the race.
Regardless, for the first time in history, a maiden had won the Bluegrass Stakes and Irap was on his way to the Kentucky Derby.
And racing fans across the country asked themselves, “Who the hell is Irap?