Written by: Griffin Coop
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The 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby will have a distinctly Canadian flavour this year.

Thumbnail for Last Foal of Canadian Champion to Start in Kentucky Derby

Photo courtesy Laura Donnell/Taylor Made

There is the Canadian owned entry, State of Honour, and Canadian trainer Mark Casse’s highly touted charge Classic Empire, and there is a third Canadian connection in this year’s run for the roses. Irap, winner of last month’s Bluegrass Stakes and a Kentucky Derby starter, is the last foal out of Canadian Champion Silken Cat who proved to be as dominant a producer as she was a runner.

Silken Cat, who won each of three starts as a two-year-old before claiming the 1995 Sovereign Award as Canada’s top juvenile filly, retired to Taylor Made Farm in Kentucky where she produced 10 foals. Five of Silken Cat’s foals brought more than a $1 million at auction.

Silken Cat’s first foal, by Gone West, brought $2 million at the 1999 Keeneland July Selected Yearling Sale and was later named Eclipse Champion Sprinter after winning the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

“That mare sold more dollars’ worth of yearlings,” said Frank Taylor, Vice President of Boarding at Taylor Made Farm. “She had a big impact on the business and on the breed altogether. She’s a special mare.”

Irap, at 21 days old, with Silken Cat at Taylor Made Farm. Photo courtesy Laura Donnell/Taylor Made

Irap, at 21 days old, with Silken Cat at Taylor Made Farm. Photo courtesy Laura Donnell/Taylor Made

Sam-Son Leadership

Silken Cat, by Storm Cat and out of Silken Doll (Chieftain), was foaled on March 25, 1993 at Ferme du Bois Vert in Quebec. The filly was sold the following year at the Fasig Tipton New York sale for $95,000 to Sam-Son Farm of Milton, Ontario.

Under Sam-Son’s leadership, Silken Cat won each of her three starts at Woodbine in dominating fashion – a maiden special weight by 8 lengths, an allowance by 14 lengths and the Mazarine Stakes by 3 ¼ lengths. For her efforts, Silken Cat received the Sovereign Award as Canada’s top two-year-old filly in 1995.

After her two-year-old campaign, Silken Cat was sold privately to Aaron and Marie Jones. In her only start as a three-year-old, Silken Cat finished third in an allowance at Hollywood Park and was later retired to Taylor Made where she would prove herself a formidable broodmare over the next two decades.

Silken Cat’s first foal was born in 1998 and, a year later, was entered into the Keeneland July Selected Yearling Sale where he brought a whopping $2 million at auction. The colt, named Speightstown, would go on to earn more than $1.2 million at the track and claim the Breeders’ Cup Sprint while being named Eclipse Champion Sprinter for 2004. Today, Speightstown stands at WinStar Farm in Versailles, KY for a stud fee of $100,000.

Between 1998 and 2014, Silken Cat produced 10 foals by some of the industry’s top stallions – Gone West, Unbridled’s Song, Saint Ballado, Bernardini and Tiznow. In total, those foals would sell at auction for nearly $9 million. Even one of her lesser regarded foals who sold for only $8,000 is a leading sire in West Virginia.

The Ugly Duckling

On a cold February 11, 2014, Silken Cat foaled what would turn out to be her last baby at Taylor Made. The mare who had arrived a Canadian champion and given birth to an American champion was now nearing the end of her career. The good news was this foal was a full brother to her previous foal in 2012 who had brought $1.75 million at auction.

This colt, by two-time Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Tiznow, had the breeding to bring a big price in the auction ring at the 2015 Keeneland September Sale. The only problem was, when he became a yearling, he didn’t look like a winner.

“He was at an ugly duckling stage,” Taylor said.

It didn’t help that Silken Cat was 23-years-old by this time and nearing the end of her life. Some horse buyers stay away from foals produced by older mares. When the yearling didn’t bring an acceptable price in the Keeneland auction, Frank Taylor made a call to Brad Grady and Bobby Dodd, a couple of pinhookers who had been interested in the horse before the auction.

“We went back to the barn with Frank,” Grady said. “(The colt) was potbellied. He had all the right parts. He was plenty correct. He had all the makings of a nice horse, but he wasn’t there that day. He was out of sorts. A lot of times, those yearlings will do that. He was not peaking at the right time.”

Grady and Dodd bought the yearling for $100,000 and took her to Grady’s farm near Ocala, FL, where it would be Dodd’s job to get the colt in tip-top shape.

Six months later, March 10 would be the date to determine whether Grady and Dodd’s bet had paid off. At the Ocala Breeders Sale, the colt (now two-years-old) would actually run on a track with a jockey on his back.

When colt #256 took his turn, he didn’t look like the same ugly duckling from September. He looked tight and strong. He was a beautiful bay-colored stream of muscle bursting across the dirt with a green saddle cloth flapping in the wind. His time of 10 and1/5 seconds wasn’t great, but it was good enough to show he was developing into a nice racehorse. More importantly for Grady, it was good enough to attract a buyer at $300,000.

The buyer was Dennis O’Neill whose brother Doug is one of the top horse trainers in the United States. Team O’Neill, and owner Paul Reddam, have won the Kentucky Derby in two of the past five years. With Reddam on the phone, Team O’Neill made the call to buy colt #256.

While the former ugly duckling had performed well and sold for a hefty sum in Florida, it was a bittersweet day for Taylor Made. Silken Cat, the grand old dam who had meant so much to the farm and horse racing, had passed away peacefully in her paddock. She was 23 years old.

“She had a big impact on the business and the breed altogether,” Taylor said. “She was a special mare. (Her death) was tough. She was an old mare – 23 years old. She had a long, good life.”

Irap trains under an exercise rider for trainer Doug O’Neill. Photo courtesy of Doug O’Neill Racing Stable
Irap trains under an exercise rider for trainer Doug O’Neill. Photo courtesy of Doug O’Neill Racing Stable

Unconventional Path

After being sold in Ocala, the colt known as Irap would make his way to the barn of trainer Doug O’Neill who 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. Irap made a valiant effort in his stakes debut, but he couldn’t catch Mastery who would become one of the most well-regarded horses on the Derby trail.

“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.

Over Irap’s next four races, he would perform well, but he would never cross the finish line first. After a fourth-place finish in the Sunland Derby in March, Irap was still in need of more points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.

So Irap, without a win to his name, was entered into the Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland Race Course, only a short distance from the auction ring where he had once been passed over as a potbellied yearling.

When the starting gates opened, Irap broke well and stalked the early pace. He gained the lead in the turn and held off two late challenges to get his first win in the biggest race of his life.

So, what chance does Silken Cat’s last foal have to win the Kentucky Derby?

“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,” Doug 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.”

Regardless of the outcome on Derby Day, Silken Cat’s last foal 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.

Griffin Coop is a former employee of Sovereign Award-winning Pin Oak Stud in Versailles, KY. A graduate of Syracuse University, Griffin writes extensively about the thoroughbred and bourbon industries on his website at www.bourbonandbarns.com. Follow Griffin on Twitter at @bourbonbarns or email him at bourbonandbarns@gmail.com.