CRAWFORD | Trio of Saturday preps helps solidify 'wide open' Ken - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Trio of Saturday preps helps solidify 'wide open' Kentucky Derby field

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Longshot Irap, with Julien Leparoux aboard, hits the wire ahead of Practical Joke in Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. (AP photo) Longshot Irap, with Julien Leparoux aboard, hits the wire ahead of Practical Joke in Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. (AP photo)
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The Kentucky Derby picture began to come into sharper focus with three major prep races in succession Saturday afternoon, from New York to Kentucky to California.

When the dust had settled, the sport’s most recognizable active trainer, Bob Baffert, who had the Triple Crown winner in American Pharoah in 2015, was out of the Kentucky Derby picture.

But a trio of former winning trainers was headed for Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, and a former favorite returned to form.

Half of the current Top 20 field in the Kentucky Derby points standings took to the track on Saturday, and none fared better than Irish War Cry, the son of Curlin who was impressive in winning the Grade II Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park in February but who struggled in the Florida Derby his last race.

Ridden by Rajiv Maragh, sidelined for 16 months by injuries suffered during a spill, Irish War Cry returned to form to overtake favorite Batallion Runner and win the Wood Memorial at New York’s Aqueduct Race Course by 3 ½ lengths.

“It’s extremely gratifying to get this horse back on track. That was huge,” said trainer Graham Motion, who won the 2011 Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom. “I don’t remember having a situation like this, when I felt so much was on the line. I think Rajiv must have felt like he had a lot of horse because he moved to the leaders so confidently.”

Irish War Cry went  1 ? miles in 1:50.91.

BLUE GRASS STAKES

At Keeneland, nobody much was paying attention to Irap. The son of Tiznow hadn’t won in four tries this year. His owner, Paul Reddam, and trainer, Doug O’Neill, were in California getting ready for the Santa Anita Derby.

After losing in the Grade III Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita in February, O’Neill sent him to Sunland Park hoping to find the winner’s circle only to see him beaten badly as the even-money favorite in the Sunland Derby.

Still O’Neill and his team believed they had a solid colt, capable of winning at the top level. Nobody much else shared that belief. Irap was at 31-1 when they went to the post on Saturday.

But he did have a top jockey, Julien Leparoux, riding him for the first time. Sitting just off the lead for most of the race, Irap drew into the lead after a half mile, then nobody could catch him.

It had been billed as one of the better Blue Grass fields in years. In fact, of Irap’s six challengers in the race, four likely are headed to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

As he watched the horses turn for home on television, Reddam, who teamed up with O’Neill to win the Derby last year with Nyquist and in 2012 with I’ll Have Another, had a familiar feeling.

“We thought, ‘Oh this is looking good’ and then in the stretch when we saw he actually had a chance, we all just started yelling and screaming,” he said. “It seemed like the wire was taking forever to get there. When he made the lead I thought that son of a gun is going to hit the board here. Then, about the eighth pole I was thinking man we have a chance to win here because McCraken had backed out of it and a couple other horses didn’t fire for whatever reason. I really have got to say Doug did a fantastic job – he and his team. It’s just fantastic feeling when you don’t think you are going to (win).”

O’Neill and his assistant, Jack Sisterson, said the key was keeping faith in the colt.

“He’s a son of Tiznow, and he has a ton of ability,” O’Neill said. “The fact he was still a maiden was kind of unfortunate, but he’s always been a talented horse. Julien gave him a great ride. Unbelievable.”

“A lot of credit to the Reddams,” Sisterson said. “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 ode 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.”

Like Nyquist, Irap will remain at Keeneland to train up to the Derby.

Irap paid $64.60, $22.40 and $6.80. He was the first maiden ever to win the Blue Grass. Practical Joke and McCracken, also presumed headed for the Derby, finished second and third.

SANTA ANITA DERBY

In the nightcap of horse racing’s Super Saturday, Gormley, who like Irish War Cry was uninspiring in his prior start, returned to form to hold off Battle of Midway in the stretch to win the signature race at Santa Anita Park for trainer John Shirreffs and owners Jerry and Ann Moss.

Named for a famous British sculptor, Gormley, a son of Malibu Moon, has carved out a nice resume for the Kentucky Derby, second in the points standings as he heads East, with four wins in six starts.

He has shown increasing versatility for Shirreffs and jockey Victor Espinoza, and had to do some work early in this race to find comfortable running room, then rated behind the leaders down the backstretch before being the best late.

“It’s easy for him to be on the lead,” Shirreffs said.. “But that’s not his best style.”

The race unfolded quickly with Battle of Midway, Bob Baffert’s American Anthem and Royal Mo going 22.66 seconds for the opening quarter and 46.55 for the half. Espinoza swung Gormley off the rail heading toward the stretch, then got what he wanted when he asked his colt to go.

Baffert, who sent three colts to the post hoping to strike gold for a berth in the Kentucky Derby, came up short. His best shot, American Anthem, dueled for the early lead but faded to finish 12th in the 13-horse field. Baffert’s Reach the World got up for fourth, but won’t qualify on points. His best hope this season, Mastery, was sidelined by ankle surgery.

Meanwhile Shirreffs is back with the owners who celebrated Giacomo’s unlikely win in 2005. They also owned Zenyatta, whose only loss came at Churchill Downs in an attempt to win a second Breeders’ Cup Classic in her final race.

Gormley also gets the services of Espinoza, who has found the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle three times.

“Today the big difference is that he was ready,” Espinoza said of his colt. “ Something went wrong last time, he was good but not quite where I wanted. . . . He’s really quick out of the gate and today the plan was to take him back and make him run because it seemed like there was a little bit of speed in the race. I had a little bit of a hard time taking him back but all I had to do was jerk him one time, a bit harder than I wanted, and that’s all it took. He relaxed very nice. Down the backside, I started laughing to myself because I knew I was in a good position and I knew all the horses in front of me were going to stop. He showed me he’s capable of going the distance. The only problem is his size; he’s not very big but he’s tough and that’s what I like about him. He works really hard and that’s what it takes.”

There’s one more Derby prep this week -- the Arkansas Derby Saturday at Oaklawn Park. But O'Neill told Tom Pedulla in an interview for America's Best Racing last week, he sees the Derby as up for grabs.

"I think it is," O'Neill said. "With Mastery out, I think everyone is looking at it that it’s wide open."

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