Irap secures elusive first career victory in Blue Grass Stakes

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The road to the 2017 Kentucky Derby took yet another bizarre twist Saturday when Irap, previously a maiden, posted a 31-1 upset in the 93rd running of the Grade 2, $1 million Blue Grass Stakes, the annual spring showcase at Keeneland.

Irap was sent away the second-longest shot in a field of seven 3-year-olds before forcing all the pace in the 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass. With Julien Leparoux aboard, Irap, a son of Tiznow, turned back a sustained stretch run from Practical Joke, prevailing by three-quarters of a length and returning $64.60.

"We had the perfect trip," said Leparoux. "We were hoping for that trip. It worked out great today."

The victory gives owner Paul Reddam and trainer Doug O'Neill -- both of whom watched the Blue Grass from Santa Anita -- another crack at the Kentucky Derby, which they teamed to win in 2012 with I'll Have Another and last year with Nyquist.

Practical Joke finished three lengths ahead of third-finisher McCraken, who incurred his first defeat in five career starts as the 8-5 favorite. J Boys Echo was another 2 1/2 lengths back in fourth and was followed in order by Tapwrit, It's Your Nickel, and Wild Shot.

Irap finished in 1:50.39 over a fast track on fractions of 23.79 seconds, 48.34, and 1:12.36.

With 170 qualifying distributed among them, including 100 to Irap, the top four finishers all have a sufficient number of points to proceed to the 143rd Kentucky Derby on May 6 at Churchill Downs, although trainer Chad Brown was non-committal about whether Practical Joke, owned by Klaravich Stables and William Lawrence, would head that way.

"I'll have to talk it over with the owners," said Brown.

Ian Wilkes, trainer of McCraken, said he was very satisfied with the effort extended by his stable star. The colt was the lukewarm favorite in the fourth and final Derby futures pool held March 31-April 2.

"What's wrong?" said Wilkes. "I got the monkey off my back. The horse never quit today. He faced adversity and the race toughened him up a little. He came back blowing today. Now we've got a good race under him. He showed character and he showed fight, which is what we wanted to see."

Said Dale Romans, trainer of J Boys Echo: "We're going. He ran a solid race. A lot can happen with 20 horses in the Derby."

Tapwrit, the 2-1 second choice, was the biggest disappointment when failing to menace and finishing 11 1/2 lengths behind the winner. Still, he and all the other logical Blue Grass favorites were overshadowed on this sunny afternoon by Irap, a bay colt who had failed to win in seven previous starts. On three prior occasions, he had finished second, including in the Robert Lewis and Mine That Bird Derby. His most recent start had resulted in a fourth-place finish in the Sunland Derby in New Mexico.

Sent away from post 6 in the Blue Grass, Irap shadowed the early front-runner, Wild Shot, before putting him away in the final turn. On an open lead past the quarter pole, he then was challenged from the outside by Practical Joke and jockey Joel Rosario, who were hung wide on both turns.

"That really hurt us," Brown said of the trip for Practical Joke. "Take nothing away from the winner, though. He ran a great race, and so did our horse."

Down the stretch, Leparoux and Rosario put their mounts to fierce drives, with Irap refusing to let Practical Joke past him.

"I felt confident, but I knew the closer was coming," said Leparoux. "It was a good race today. He never gave up."

"A lot of credit to the Reddams," said Jack Sisterson, a former assistant trainer who saddled Irap for O'Neill. "He [Irap] went to Sunland Park and didn't run quite as well as we expected. Doug said, 'This horse is better than this, so let's send him to Keeneland.' And sure enough, he showed up on the day.

"Julien rode him perfect, and it worked out. You have to toy with this horse. He's such a thinker. As a 2-year-old, he always showed talent. When Julien came to gallop him Wednesday, he said, 'This is a nice horse!'"

Irap, bred in Kentucky by Aaron and Marie Jones, was a $300,000 purchase as a 2-year-old in March 2016 at Ocala. He had raced with blinkers in two of his three prior starts but had them removed again for the Blue Grass.

The $2 exacta (6-7) paid $328.60, the $1 trifecta (6-7-2) returned $511.30, and the 10-cent superfecta (9-1-6-7-6) was worth $214.88.

A 50-cent pick five wager on all the graded stakes (9-1-6-7-6) was worth $64,103 for a perfect ticket. The pick five pool was $633,133.

On-track attendance was 32,610.

No Blue Grass winner has won the Derby since Strike the Gold in 1991. The last horse to compete in the Blue Grass and win the Derby was Street Sense in 2007. Those statistics were a primary reason the race was downgraded in December from its long-held Grade 1 status.

The win mutuel for Irap was the biggest since Stately Victor ($82.20) won the 2010 running over Polytrack. The win was the second in the race for Leparoux, following Java's War in 2013.