04/10/2017 1:48PM

Road to the Derby: Blue Grass analysis

Coady Photography
Irap pulls a 31-1 upset of the Blue Grass Stakes under Julien Leparoux.

Grade 2, $1 million Blue Grass Stakes; 1 1/8 miles; Keeneland; April 8, 2017
(100 Derby qualifying points for a win, 40 for second, 20 for third, 10 for fourth)

Winner: Irap, by Tiznow
Trainer: Doug O’Neill
Jockey: Julien Leparoux
Owner: Reddam Racing LLC
Beyer Speed Figure: 93

The Blue Grass on paper looked like the strongest Derby prep yet, owing to the presence of such well-regarded prospects as MCCRAKEN, J BOYS ECHO, PRACTICAL JOKE, and TAPWRIT, yet all four were defeated by 31-1 longshot IRAP, who had failed to win in his previous seven starts and had lost at Sunland in his last two, including a fourth-place finish in the Sunland Derby.

But Irap ran the best race of his career here, earning a solid Beyer Speed Figure. Yet this race will remain a mystery until all run back. Is Irap – who certainly has the pedigree and physicality to be a top runner -- suddenly getting good just when it matters most, or was this a fluke, with him firing and the marquee runners underperforming?

It has happened before in this very stakes race.

In 1995, for instance, the unheralded Wild Syn scored a 30-1 upset in the Blue Grass, beating five rivals, including Thunder Gulch, who was fourth at 6-5 after winning the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, and Tejano Run, who was third at 2-1. Three weeks later, Thunder Gulch won the Derby at 24-1, and Tejano Run was second at 8-1, while Wild Syn ran last in a field of 19. I’m not staying Irap will emulate Wild Syn, but it’s definitely worth considering potential rebounds in the Derby from McCraken and Tapwrit, for instance, because they’ve shown they are better than how they performed in the Blue Grass.

:: ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays, and analysis

In the Blue Grass, Irap broke well and went into the first turn just outside of the early leader, WILD SHOT. He stayed in that spot down the backstretch and into the far turn while going along nicely, took the lead when Wild Shot began to fade three furlongs out, stayed on his wrong lead all the way through the stretch, yet still prevailed. 

Practical Joke, who was second, went into the first turn three paths wide while stalking the leaders. He moved up to third while beating McCraken to a spot heading into the far turn, stayed three wide around the far turn, had dead aim on Irap the length of the stretch, but couldn’t get past him despite aggressive encouragement from Joel Rosario. This is a talented colt, but I’ve been skeptical over his aptitude as the distances increase and remain so; I don’t think the Derby distance will suit him.

McCraken, who was third, broke out at the start and bumped with J Boys Echo, raced mid-pack between runners around the first turn, was shuffled back heading into the far turn just inside of Practical Joke, ended up near the rear of the pack, rallied four paths wide on the far turn, and finished evenly. This was his first start since Feb. 11, it was not the cleanest trip, and his trainer, Ian Wilkes, had the best mentor possible in Carl Nafzger in knowing how to point for a major goal and use a prep as a prep. I think this colt will improve a bunch in the Derby.

J Boys Echo, who was fourth, was bumped by McCraken leaving the gate and then bumped with Tapwrit, was shuffled back to last while checking off the heels of McCraken into the first turn, knifed between horses heading into the far turn while inside both McCraken and Tapwrit, was outrun on the far turn despite energetic handling, angled to the middle of the track in upper stretch, but made no impact late.

Tapwrit, who was fifth, bumped with J Boys Echo soon after leaving the gate, raced three to four paths wide around the first turn while near the rear, went into the far turn at the back of the pack and widest of all, couldn’t keep up with McCraken heading into the lane while in the five path, checked slightly in upper stretch when J Boys Echo was angled out for racing room, and never really threatened after an eventful trip. 

IT’S YOUR NICKEL, who was sixth, saved ground on the first turn while following Wild Shot, sat in that gorgeous spot down the backstretch and into the far turn, began to be outrun on the far turn and dropped back to last, then picked off the exhausted Wild Shot in deep stretch.

Wild Shot, who finished last of seven, broke sharply and went right to the front while crossing over to the rail, led until the far turn, was passed by Irap three furlongs out, then steadily gave way.