The 135-1 longshot Ive Struck a Nerve lived up to his name in Saturday's Grade 2, $400,000 Risen Star at Fair Grounds. Trained by Keith Desormeaux and ridden by James Graham, the locally-based colt came from the clouds to down his better-fancied rivals from high-profile barns, and earned 50 points toward the Kentucky Derby.
Big Chief Racing's Ive Struck a Nerve, who was beaten 13 1/2 lengths by Oxbow in the Grade 3 Lecomte last out, came charging down the center of the track to edge Bob Baffert's Code West, Todd Pletcher's Palace Malice and D. Wayne Lukas' Oxbow in a blanket finish.
Normandy Invasion, the 3-2 favorite, got off to an awkward start and raced in last before offering a belated rally for fifth.
Ive Struck a Nerve, who provided windfall mutuels of $272.40, $110.60 and $42.40, had looked exposed going into the Risen Star. The most experienced runner in the group with eight lifetime starts, he had taken six tries to break his maiden, and finally accomplished that mission in a six-furlong event at Fair Grounds on November 24. Ive Struck a Nerve was also winless from four previous stakes attempts. Ninth in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity and fourth in the October 20 Jean Lafitte as a maiden, he was subsequently second in the December 22 Sugar Bowl and a remote fourth in the January 19 Lecomte.
That resume didn't appear anywhere good enough to spark a massive form turnaround with Lecomte romper Oxbow, never mind Remsen near-misser Normandy Invasion and other well-regarded shippers Code West and Palace Malice. But Ive Struck a Nerve stepped up to the plate here, earning his spot on the Derby trail.
"I called my wife and told her to get fitted for a Derby hat," owner Matt Bryan of Big Chief Racing said. "As long as I live I will re-live this race over and over. We have been waiting for a clean trip and we got it today. Once he got free on the outside we went absolutely crazy."
"Every time this horse has gone a distance, he's had some kind of trouble," Desormeaux said. "We have talked about it several times, Matt Bryan and I, and we just wanted a clean trip at a distance, and if he got beat 14 lengths again we'd quit trying, but we have had trouble every trip and James rode him perfectly and obviously he proved what Matt and I knew -- that he is a nice horse."
In the early going, Ive Struck A Nerve was anchored at the rear along with Normandy Invasion, who bobbled after leaving the gate a tad slowly. Up front, the rail-drawn Proud Strike covered an opening quarter in :23 4/5. Code West, who was lapped right onto flank, gained a slim lead through the half in :48 1/5. Oxbow, hung out wide from post 10, advanced into a pace-pressing third by that point.
Rounding the far turn, Oxbow headed Code West at the six-furlong mark in 1:12 3/5. Proud Strike began to retreat, but Mylute and Palace Malice were working their way into contention.
As Oxbow tried to inch clear in the stretch, Palace Malice loomed as his biggest danger. Yet Mylute was still in the hunt on the outside, and Code West continued in resilient fashion on the rail.
Then, widest of all, Ive Struck a Nerve suddenly arrived on the premises. Having stealthily improved his position in upper stretch, the longshot hit his best stride inside the final sixteenth and overtook the battling leaders. Ive Struck a Nerve negotiated 1 1/16 miles on the fast track in 1:44 2/5 to register his first stakes coup, boosting his bankroll to $305,790 from his 9-2-1-2 line.
"In the mornings he is being really aggressive in his work patterns with company," Graham noted, "so today and the last race he was aggressive around the first turn. Today, once I got him settled, he did everything I asked him to do. He finished off strong. Galloped out good and had a great trip."
Bryan paid tribute to trainer Desormeaux, an older brother of Hall of Fame rider Kent Desormeaux, who was winning his first graded stakes.
"I have always believed in Keith Desormeaux," the winning owner said. "You put a good horse in his hands and you better watch out. He's a great horseman and we wanted to put our money behind him."
Code West stayed on resolutely and nearly regained the advantage, falling just a nose short of Ive Struck a Nerve at the wire. Palace Malice was another half-length away in third, denying Oxbow in a photo.
Code West couldn't see Ive Struck a Nerve coming, according to jockey Martin Garcia.
"My horse ran really good," Garcia said, "and then I was in a really good position. It looks like, that horse outside, he is surprising because my horse he was really competitive in the stretch but he never saw the horse outside, which is surprising."
Rosie Napravnik, the rider of Palace Malice, commented that his two-turn debut was full of merit.
"He was really not standing great in the gate and maybe got off just a step slow," Napravnik said, "so we lost some position. But, having said that, I ended up getting an excellent trip. Was able to save ground when I wanted, I wasn't forced to move early or late, so we got a good trip. He ran a great race and we got beat half a length for everything, so for his first race at two turns and all, that I think it was an excellent race."
Jon Court had no complaints about his passage aboard Oxbow.
"I had a good, clean trip," Court said. "He didn't break really running. I didn't want him to get in a hurry leaving there and burn himself out. He just sat off the pace; I knew he didn't have to be on the lead. He ended up inheriting the lead and I just straightened for home and sat down and went for the gusto like I did last time, but the last 40, 50 yards they overtook me."
Normandy Invasion was doing his best work all too late, and went down to defeat by a total of 1 1/2 lengths. Golden Soul, Mylute, Proud Strike, Bethel, Agent, Circle Unbroken and Hardrock Eleven rounded out the order of finish.
There were three scratches. Trainer Al Stall Jr.'s duo of Departing and Sunbean, who would have broken from the two outside posts, were both withdrawn. Departing will await next Saturday's Texas Heritage at Sam Houston. Sunbean, originally on the Risen Star's also-eligible list, ran instead in Saturday's off-the-turf Gentilly Stakes and dusted fellow Louisiana-breds. Trainer Doug O'Neill opted to ship He's Had Enough to Gulfstream Park for Saturday's Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, where he finished fifth.
Ive Struck a Nerve crowned a banner day for breeder Brereton C. Jones, who was on hand at Fair Grounds to watch homebred Mark Valeski take Saturday's Grade 3 Mineshaft Handicap. The Kentucky-bred Ive Struck a Nerve has been sold at auction three times. A bargain $1,700 Keeneland November weanling, he brought $17,000 as an OBS August yearling and $82,000 as an OBS April two-year-old.
Sired by Yankee Gentleman, who formerly stood at Jones' Airdrie before moving to Louisiana, Ive Struck a Nerve is out of the winning Ranaway, a daughter of Cryptoclearance. Ranaway, a full sister to stakes-placed Cryptoway, is a half-sister to Grade 1 winner K. J.'s Appeal and Grade 2 victor Slew Valley.
Ive Struck a Nerve comes from the family of a former Fair Grounds mainstay, Grade 3 hero Explosive Bid. The turf race that used to be named in his honor is now called the Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Memorial, a Grade 2 event on Louisiana Derby Day.
Now perched atop the Kentucky Derby points standings with 51 (including his one point for fourth in the Lecomte), Ive Struck a Nerve will try to defend his home track from another invasion in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby on March 30.
"There is no doubt we will try the Louisiana Derby," Desormeaux said. "Then, who doesn't want to go to Louisville, right? That's why we all get in this crazy business."