This is Part 5 of 5 in a series about Irap who will start in the Kentucky Derby on May 6.
Part 5: The Road to the Derby
After Irap was sold in Ocala, he made his way to the barn of trainer Doug O’Neill. Not a bad place for a young horse to land. Doug O’Neill has trained two Kentucky Derby winners in the past five years (I’ll Have Another in 2012 and Nyquist in 2016).
If Irap were to lead O’Neill to his third Derby victory, he would not take a conventional path to get there. Irap failed to win in his first two starts in maiden races at Santa Anita and Del Mar in the fall of 2016, but O’Neill had seen enough encouraging signs in Irap to give him a start in the Grade-I Los Alamitos Futurity in December.
On December 10 of last year, Irap loaded into the starting gates at Los Alamitos Race Course in Southern California. The gates flew open and Irap easily settled into third position. He looked comfortable, like he’d been doing this for years. He held onto the third spot as the top three horses drew away (far away) from the other two horses in the back. As they entered the final stretch, Irap moved into second as track announcer Bobby Neuman proclaimed “And it’s Irap who’s going to challenge from the outside.” Irap made some ground on the leader, Mastery, and Neuman bellowed “Mastery is going to have to work this afternoon.”
In the end, Mastery drew away to win by five lengths but Irap made a valiant effort and a strong debut against tough competition. Mastery would become a top contender for the Kentucky Derby before a leg injury requiring surgery forced him off the Derby trail. Finishing a strong second to Mastery was an impressive stakes debut for Irap.
“After running second to the great Mastery in the Los Al Futurity, we thought anything was possible as the three-year-old campaign unfolded,” Doug O’Neill said.
It seemed like things would unfold easily for Irap, but that’s not exactly how things played out. Irap would go on to finish second in a maiden race before having a few more good finishes in stakes races. But, unfortunately, Irap finished fourth in the Sunland Derby and, by late March, still hadn’t won and hadn’t accrued many Kentucky Derby points. (In simple terms, horses accrue points for the Kentucky Derby based on their performance in certain races. Irap needed more if he were to make it to the Derby).
So Irap was entered into the Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland where he would enter the starting gates a maiden and cross the finish line a Kentucky Derby contender. So how much has he improved? Is he ready to step up to the big time?
“I think he is a classy, mature colt and surrounded by the same Team O'Neill that has been with the former Kentucky Derby winners,” O’Neill said. “The Derby this year does seem void of any heavy favorite. Irap would have to run the best race of his career to win.”
Frank Taylor, who raised Irap, thinks the horse has a chance.
“I think he’s got as good a chance as anybody,” Taylor said.” This is kind of a wide open Derby and he’s on the improve. He really changed. I saw him in the paddock before the Bluegrass. I hadn’t seen him since he was a yearling. He totally changed. He really improved. He’s grown into a big good looking horse now.”
With less than two weeks to go before the big race, Irap is currently listed at odds of 16-to-1 and is the sixth choice out of 22 horses, according to one oddsmaker.
The Kentucky Derby will be the longest race of Irap’s career and that could be a positive for him, considering his pedigree suggests he is better suited for longer distances.
“The longer the better and the more mature he gets, the better he is going to perform,” Doug O’Neill said.
On May 6, Irap will walk onto the track at Churchill Downs where legends have walked before him. A crowd of more than 100,000 will sing “My Old Kentucky Home” with a mint julep in their hand. Millions will watch on TV with anticipation as the horses load into the starting gates. But only a handful will know the full story. The story of Silken Cat, the Canadian champion, the cash register. The story of the half-brother to Speightstown. The ugly duckling. The Texas-Oil-Man-turned-pinhooker who took a chance on a potbellied yearling. The Ocala Breeders Sale. The Los Alamitos Futurity and the maiden who surprised everyone and won the Bluegrass Stakes.
Regardless of the outcome on Derby Day, the ugly duckling has come a long way in a short period of time.
“We had pegged him as a late developing colt, as he turned out to be,” Dennis O’Neill said. “We felt that if we were patient with him, we would be rewarded down the line.”
On May 6, the world will find out just how big a reward it will be.