A year after American Pharoah thrilled the sports world by winning horse racing’s first Triple Crown in 37 years, here comes Nyquist.
The colt named for Detroit Red Wings player Gustav Nyquist is looking like a worthy successor to a sport eager to retain the new fans it gained during American Pharoah’s sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
Nyquist was last year’s 2-year-old champion, capping his season with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
Now he is expected to be the favorite for the 142nd Kentucky Derby next Saturday. The colt brings a 7-0 career record into Churchill Downs.
No less an expert than four-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert thinks Nyquist is the horse to beat in the 1¼-mile race.
“He hasn’t done anything wrong at all,” said Baffert, who oversaw now-retired American Pharoah. “You have Nyquist and you have a lot of horses underneath.”
Nyquist comes into America’s greatest race off a five-week break, winning the Florida Derby in his final prep. He beat another undefeated horse, Mohaymen, who finished fourth. With $3.28 million, Nyquist is the top earner among the contenders vying to wear the garland of red roses.
Nyquist is backed by an experienced team: owner J. Paul Reddam, trainer Doug O’Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez. The Southern California-based trio won the 2012 Derby and Preakness with I’ll Have Another, who was stunningly retired on the eve of the Belmont with a leg injury, dashing the sport’s Triple Crown hopes.
“I hope I have the same ending as I’ll Have Another, at least the first two legs,” O’Neill said. “It’s a little bit more enjoyable this time because we’ve been there before and we can kind of soak it up a little bit more.”
Nyquist will need some luck running in an expected full field of 20 horses. The final lineup won’t be known until Wednesday, when entries are drawn and post positions are assigned.
“To me, it’s not a stellar field like it was last year,” said Ken Ramsey, who owns contender Oscar-Nominated. “So it’s wide open.”
O’Neill believes the Derby is the toughest race to win in the United States, partly because none of the 3-year-olds has run the distance or faced that many other horses. A bad post position or a poor break from the starting gate can trip up a horse, too.
“You have to have a clean trip and then even if you get a clean trip you’ve got to have a horse that can go a mile-and-a-quarter no matter what time it is,” he said. “What I love about Nyquist’s chances is he’s won from the rail, he’s won from the 12-hole, he’s won wire-to-wire, he’s won from just off the pace. Mario can call audibles as the race unfolds if it doesn’t unfold perfectly, and that really is a big benefit.”
Baffert’s lone entry is Mor Spirit, who has never been worse than second in seven career starts. His jockey is Gary Stevens, a three-time Derby winner whose last victory came in 1997 aboard Silver Charm, trained by Baffert.
Six months after American Pharoah headed off to stud duty in Lexington, Kentucky, Baffert still sees the effect his champion had on racing.
“People are really following it now to see if they can watch another horse,” he said. “Nyquist, he’s been perfect. Everybody’s thinking maybe we’re going to get another horse like that.”
Three trainers are expected to saddle two horses each. Steve Asmussen has Gun Runner, who topped the Derby points leaderboard ahead of Nyquist, and Creator in pursuit of his first Derby after recently being elected to racing’s Hall of Fame. Todd Pletcher has Wood Memorial winner Outwork and Tampa Bay Derby winner Destin. Chad Brown has Shagaf and Blue Grass runner-up My Man Sam.
Among owners, Mike Repole is in contention with Outwork. He owned Uncle Mo, the sire of Nyquist. Like his son, Uncle Mo was undefeated in his 2-year-old season and was the early favorite for the 2011 Derby, but he was scratched the day before because of illness.
The ruling Maktoum family of Dubai is back at the Derby trying to improve its 0-for-7 mark. Its Shadwell Stable has Mohaymen and Shagaf.
O’Neill is comfortable having a bull’s-eye on his horse’s back as the favorite, and he welcomes a chance for Nyquist to follow up on American Pharoah’s history-making year.
“He took horse racing from the back page of the sports section, sometimes not even covered in the sports section, to the front page of the sports section,” the trainer said. “I look forward to having Nyquist be on the front of the sports section.”