Nyquist, who’s named for a 26-year-old hockey player, is now the biggest name in horse racing. He’s undefeated after eight races, his most recent win being the Kentucky Derby, the next one likely to be the Preakness Stakes, May 21 in Baltimore.
The well-conformed, well-composed, magnificently trained bay colt was a 2-1 favorite at Churchill Downs despite a pedigree that screamed a mile and a 16th, not 1 ¼.
His sire, Uncle Mo, never won beyond 1 1/16. His grandfathers, Indian Charlie and Forestry, were no good beyond 1 1/8. You have to go back to his great-grandparents, Arch and Seeking the Gold, to find the stamina that showed up for Nyquist on a mostly dazzling Saturday afternoon in Louisville.
Mario Gutierrez rode him perfectly, in his second Derby win, for the same trainer, Doug O’Neill, and the same hockey-loving Canadian owner, Paul Reddam.
It’s never easy to navigate a 20-horse field, but Nyquist made it about as easy for Gutierrez as it could be. This colt does not have the speed of last year’s Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah, but he has as much agility, and perhaps even more heart and brains. Recall that Pharoah, a little less focused than Nyquist, did lose his first race.
Before a crowd of 167,000, trailing only last year’s Derby turnout, Nyquist ran his usual steady, unwowing race. He stalked Danzing Candy, who churned very brisk fractions of 22.6 and 45.8 seconds, and put him away on the far turn.
On sun-baked clay, speed holding, there was little chance for talented closers Exaggerator and Suddenbreakingnews, even with the hot pace in their favor. They finished second and fifth, respectively.
Kent Desormeaux, Exaggerator’s jockey and three-time Derby winner, insisted his path to victory was blocked entering the stretch: “I had to stop him cold, air-brake him like an l8-wheeler. I know it was the difference in two lengths.”
Replays indicate that Desormeaux, is, like his horse, an Exaggerator. And the jockey did not mention that closers from far back in a crowded field usually stall in traffic. And he admitted that in the final sixteenth mile his colt “leveled off.”
Nyquist, who posted a modest – though career-best — Beyer speed figure of 103, was not threatened in the stretch. He beat Exaggerator by a decisive 1 ¼ lengths and was measuring him during the gallop-out after they crossed the finish line.
Nyquist did not want the race to end, which partly explains how he outruns his breeding. The rest of the story has to do with O’Neill’s training, which takes advantage of the non-winter of California. He built a strong foundation with long gallops, long walks or controlled swims almost every day.
“We’re able to train our horses 100 percent of the time,” O’Neill said after the roses were draped across Nyquist’s withers. “I think that’s a real advantage out there.”
California-trained horses have won the Derby four of the past five years. O’Neill attributes that to not having to keep them warm and dry in the barn. He put so much early training into Nyquist that he could race him five times and make him juvenile champion. He had a head start on the other 3-year-olds, and no one is catching up.
Nyquist is the eighth undefeated Derby winner in the 142-year history of the race. He could bring the sport back-to-back Triple Crowns, which happened the last time we had one. Perhaps Nyquist can follow American Pharoah the same way Affirmed in 1978 succeeded Seattle Slew.
Trying again to be spoiler is Exaggerator. He’s at Pimlico for a fifth attempt to beat Nyquist. You have to think if it hasn’t happened by now, it probably won’t.
The Preakness always presents some “new shooters” whose advantage is they didn’t endure a uniquely grueling race two weeks earlier. A horse typically loses at least 200 pounds – more than 10 percent of its mass — running in the Derby and can’t get all the flesh back in time for the Preakness.
A third week between these two races would be wonderful, but hey, nobody asked me.
The best of the new shooters may be Collected, trained by last year’s Triple Crown winner, Bob Baffert, who sent his Derby starter, Mor Spirit, home to SoCal after he finished a very dull 10th.
Collected comes to creaky Pimlico after back-to-back stakes victories, at Sunland and Lexington. He could set the pace in the 141st Preakness. And unlike Danzing Candy, Collected has stamina. But with his best Beyer being 90, Collected would need a Bunyanesque step forward to win this Preakness.
Also interesting is Stradivari, who has raced only once this year, but it was impressive: a 1 1/8-mile allowance at Keeneland on April 17 which the bay colt won by 14 lengths. He’s trained by Todd Fletcher, who got little response from his two Derby entrants, Destin and Outwork.
Considering how Nyquist inhaled Churchill’s 1 ¼ miles, I can’t see him spitting his bit in a race that’s half a furlong shorter. You can’t help looking ahead to the June 11 Belmont Stakes, the 1 ½-mile Test of Champions. There will be another wave of doubt that an Uncle Mo can get mo distance.
O’Neill will keep following the blueprint that brought him Derby and Preakness wins with I’ll Have Another in 2012. That colt was denied a chance at the Triple because of an injury.
Aware of the value of health, the trainer cut back on Nyquist’s workload after his final prep race, the Florida Derby. O’Neill realized his hard-driving grinder was fast enough, strong enough to beat his classmates. The Triple Crown is Nyquist’s to lose. I’m starting to like his odds, whatever they are. So far he’s never come close to losing anything.