He ended his juvenile campaign having achieved all he could to prove himself the best of his class. Yet, when the 2016 Kentucky Derby prep season began, several pundits were openly skeptical of the exploits of unbeaten champion Nyquist when forecasting his potential come the first leg of the Triple Crown.
Having yet to put a foot wrong or face a horse who could pass him, opinion has swung full circle back around to the son of Uncle Mo. After drawing a thoroughly benign post position No. 13 in the 20-horse field, Reddam Racing’s Nyquist was installed as the 3-to-1 morning line favorite over second-choice Exaggerator for the 142nd Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs this Saturday.
With his 7-for-7 record and four career Grade I victories, Nyquist has more than enough credentials as he attempts to become the fourth straight Kentucky Derby favorite take the roses. Though questions still swirl about his ability to successfully handle the 1 ¼ -miles distance, the bay colt has proven himself as versatile a runner as any who will load into the starting gate.
When he cemented his championship 2-year-old campaign with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he did so having recovered after being shuffled back to eighth early on, traveling wide through and still rallying to notch a half length win.
His early speed carried him through a half mile in 44.49 during his season-opening win in the Grade II, seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes on Feb. 15, and he also dictated the action when he handed previously unbeaten Mohaymen his first career defeat with a sublime victory in the Grade I Florida Derby going 1 1/8 miles on April 2.
“We’ve got a horse who is doing great and a jockey (Mario Gutierrez) with ice in his veins, so we’re doing good,” said trainer Doug O’Neill, who captured the 2012 Kentucky Derby with I’ll Have Another out of post No. 19. “I would not mind at all (being on the lead). I think Nyquist has shown the versatility to win on the lead, from off the pace. We’ve got options.
“I think his credentials … he’s won four Grade Is on four different tracks … I think if the Florida Derby would have been a mile and a half, he still would have won. I don’t think the mile and a quarter is an issue. I’m very optimistic.”
With an ample amount of closers slated for the field, the post draws of potential speed threats was as closely watched among respective connections as their own horses.
The complexion of the race may hinge on how front-running Danzing Candy responds to having to break from the outside No. 20 post. The son of Twirling Candy has earned each of his three career wins, including the Grade II San Felipe, on the front end but faded to fourth after setting a swift early pace in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby.
“We load last, which is not bad because he can be a little bit of a bad gate horse,” trainer Cliff Sise Jr. said. “Plus, this way we just casually come over. So, it’s not that bad. It’s better than having 1, 2 or 3. This way, if someone else wants to go, he can lay second.”
All the major contenders dodged a bullet when Wood Memorial runner-up Trojan Nation, a maiden, drew the dreaded No. 1 post. Cheers were heard from around the room as Santa Anita Derby winner Exaggerator, the second-choice at 8-to-1, landed post position No. 11, while 10-to-1 co-third choice Mohaymen will break just outside of Nyquist from post No. 14.
“It’s a great post,” said Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of Mohaymen. “(Danzing Candy) probably has to go from out there so he’ll probably clear everybody and then Nyquist is right inside of us and Outwork (in post 15) has a little speed on the speed. So hopefully we’ll have plenty to follow and set up as a stalker whether we are fifth or eighth.”
How hard Danzing Candy has to work to try and make the lead could mean the difference between a favorable pace scenario for closers or not. Brody’s Cause, winner of the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 9, will have to try and ease his way into the pack out of post No. 19 but trainer Dale Romans wasn’t as concerned about the son of Giant’s Causeway still being able to deliver his late kick.
“With the speed horse to our outside, maybe we can sit back, let him clear and watch what the field does,” Romans said. “This looks to me like a field that could separate itself and spread out down the lane into the first turn. So after thinking about it, I think 19 could be a good spot for us. Maybe (Danzing Candy) can clear us and make everyone else snatch up.”
When Mohaymen was carrying the burnt of the favoritism for most of the Kentucky Derby prep season, O’Neill cracked that he didn’t mind his charge flying under the radar ‘as long as he keeps flying.’
“I feel great about it. It’s really unbelievable that we’ve got a 3-to-1 favorite in the Derby and the second choice is 8-to-1,” O’Neill said. “That’s a big differential there so that’s pretty exciting.”
2016 Kentucky Derby field
Julie Gilbert and Aaron Sones
Samuel F. Henderson
Donnie Von Hemel
Ricardo Santana Jr.
G M B Racing
Winchell Thoroughbreds LLC/Three Chimneys
My Man Sam
Sheep Pond Partners
Irad Ortiz Jr.
Twin Creeks/Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners
Robert LaPenta/Harry Rosenblum/Southern Springs
Big Chief/Head of Plains/Rocker O Ranch
G M B Racing
Brian Hernandez Jr.
Michael Lund Petersen
Grupo 7C Racing Stable
Albaugh Family Stable
Halo Farms/Jim and Dianne Bashor
McCormick Racing/Southern Equine
William Pacella, Frank L. Jones Jr. and Frank Shoop
Note: No. 21 Laoban and No. 22 Cherry Wine are “also eligible” horses who get into the Derby only if another horse scratches before 9 a.m. Friday. Laoban would get in first, then Cherry Wine if a second horse scratches.
Kentucky Derby 142
Post time: 6:34 p.m.