If Nyquist was a person, or even an animal that I ever came within personal contact of, I would owe him an apology. Heading into the Florida Derby I was not particularly kind about his chances in his showdown with Mohaymen. I questioned the wisdom of him heading to Florida, his ability to handle that distance, or his quality when faced with an opponent as strong as Mohaymen. On that day, at least, I was proven wrong. Very wrong. Nyquist ran away with the race, and with it likely staked his claim as Kentucky Derby favorite. He is seeking to become just the second Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner to win the Derby, following in the footsteps of Street Sense in 2007. He is also aiming to be the second straight two year old champion to wear roses. American Pharoah made that double look pretty easy. Unlike Street Sense or American Pharoah, though, Nyquist comes into this challenge without a loss. Street Sense lost his final prep race by a nose. American Pharoah lost at two.
We'll get a thorny issue out of the way early, because we will hear lots about it leading up to the Derby. These connections - owner, trainer, jockey - are the same as I'll Have Another, the 2012 Derby and Preakness winner. You may recall that that horse was scratched on the eve of the Belmont. The reason was given as a tendon injury. There are those out there, though, that at best think that that is a partial explanation. Doug O'Neill has not had a pristine past, and some have wondered if it was better to scratch a Triple Crown contender than to have one fail a test of some sort. I won't call those people wrong in their musings. This is a very fine horse that could be a Derby winner. I just wish that good things happened to better people.
Last race: Nyquist dominated the Florida Derby. Simple as that. When Mohaymen, who was the race favorite, launched a feeble move, Nyquist dispatched it and ran away from the field. It was unquestionably impressive. There are footnotes worth a quick discussion, though. First, the surface. The track was listed as good at post time. Earlier in the day it had rained heavily and the track was sloppy. It had tightened up but was still heavy. Nyquist handled the surface very well. Mohaymen hated it. Nyquist looked like he would have won regardless of the surface, but it's worth noting. Second, the stretch. Once they were clear of the field the jockey looked back to make sure no one was chasing. The horse changed leads when he did and drifted way outside. Then he changed leads again and seemed to be playing down the stretch to the finish line. He didn't seem to be struggling, but he wasn't sharp. It's not a huge deal, though, I didn't like it when I saw it, and several others have raised concerns since. He will need to be more professional than that in his next outing. Still, wildly impressive all in all.
Prior experience: He broke his maiden in June at Santa Anita and then has won graded stakes since. First, three in California last fall. Then the Breeders' Cup at Keeneland. After a layoff, it was the San Vicente at Santa Anita in February to kick off his three year old campaign.
Trainer: Doug O'Neill has the two Triple Crown race wins with I'll Have Another, and five Breeders' Cup wins. He's currently third in the nation in earnings behind perpetual leaders Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen.
Jockey: Mario Gutierrez was as obscure and inexperienced on the national stage as a guy could be leading into that 2012 Derby. He rode a fantastic race on I'll Have Another, though - and a good one in the Preakness, too. Faith in him from O'Neill got him that ride and has essentially been his career since. He rides almost exclusively for O'Neill, and any success he has had has been in partnership. He obviously knows how to win the Derby, and he rises to the occasion, but doesn't have a huge store of big race experience to draw from.
Breeding: This is where the debate around Nyquist comes to a head. People who like him and will back him point to the fact he always finds ways to win. They trust their eyes. Those who are skeptical - myself included - point to his pedigree. His sire, Uncle Mo - another Breeders' Cup Juvenile and two year old championship winner - never won past 8.5 furlongs and doesn't have the bloodlines to provide inspiring stamina. Nyquist's damsire is Forestry. He is a spectacular horse, but one who was a sprinter. A great sprinter, but a sprinter. There are more stamina influences in his Forestry's pedigree, but his best offspring have run their best at a mile or shorter. He has ridiculous amounts of class in his pedigree, but he has to overcome distance questions from both sides. I'll flat out say it - I am not at all convinced that Nyquist can get a mile and a quarter effectively, and when his odds are as low as they will be and there are so many other horses bred with stamina to burn I'm going to look elsewhere. I've seen it put well elsewhere - I can respect the heck out of this horse and still think he won't last the distance and is a bad bet.
Odds: BetOnline has him at +300 to win the Derby. No other horse, as we await the last four major Derby prep races, is below +1000.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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