The Team O’Neill contingent is a good-feeling bunch with personalities to spare. Yet, as the connections of unbeaten champion Nyquist went to celebrate the colt’s 1 ¼-length triumph in the 142nd Kentucky Derby on Saturday night, the tone of the evening was more reflective than raucous, quietly joyful instead of over-the-top.
“We just got together and shook each other’s hands and slapped each other on the back and had a nice time,” said Steve Rothblum, racing manager for trainer Doug O’Neill’s close-knit team. “It was a big celebration with a lot of smiles ... but it was subdued in the fact there was no wild drunken party or any of that stuff. With a horse this good, we wanted to treat it with respect and with reverence that we owe the horse.”
It is appropriate that Nyquist’s human squad takes its cues from his demeanor. The son of Uncle Mo didn’t have to be overly flashy in capturing the first leg of the Triple Crown to make the point of just how emphatic his talent is.
The freshly minted Kentucky Derby winner was in good order Sunday morning with his feed tub reportedly empty and his legs cold less than 24 hours after his classic triumph. Nyquist won’t waste any time taking his unbeaten show on the road as he is slated to ship to Baltimore on Monday to begin preparations for the Preakness Stakes on May 21, the middle leg of the Triple Crown.
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“He’s doing great,” O’Neill said before catching an early flight back to California. “He had his head out over the webbing, looking bright-eyed. He ate it all up last night. Couldn’t be doing better. He’s just such a special horse.”
The unique quality Nyquist has was put on display for the eighth time in as many career starts. Silly as it seems to think an unblemished horse had something to prove, the bay colt nonetheless answered lingering critics who questioned his stamina when he rated off swift early fractions and then put his 19 challengers away to become the first unbeaten juvenile champion to win the Kentucky Derby since Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew in 1977.
Seattle Slew’s name was invoked Sunday by top O’Neill assistant Leandro Mora, who didn’t shy away from comparing Nyquist to the only unbeaten Triple Crown hero. While acknowledging all the good fortune that must fall into place for Nyquist to match that feat, his camp feels his versatility will stand him in extremely strong stead over the next fewweeks.
When he won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last October, Nyquist rallied after being shuffled back to eighth in the early going. He won the Grade I Florida Derby on April 2 in gate-to-wire fashion and then relaxed under Mario Gutierrez in the Kentucky Derby when Danzing Candy ran through an opening half mile in 45.72.
“He has 2-3 different styles of running so ... that will help us a lot,” Mora said. “If you have a horse who is only a closer with no speed or only a speed horse, you always worry because you don’t know what will happen. We’re so lucky to have a horse that you can do whatever you want.
“I was here as a kid when Seattle Slew won (the Derby) and I compare this horse to Seattle Slew. This is our Seattle Slew.”
Given that the Kentucky Derby was only the third start of the year for Nyquist, he should have fairly fresh legs as he makes the two-week turnaround into the 1 3/16-mile Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course.
Expected to join him in Baltimore is Grade I winner Exaggerator, who rallied from 15th to get second in the Kentucky Derby. The son of Curlin has been beaten by Nyquist in each of their four meetings but could get another favorable pace scenario to close into with the likes of Awesome Speed and Collected expected to be among the ‘new shooters.’
“I went to the test barn last night and he recovery quickly and looks great,” Julie Clark, assistant to trainer Keith Desormeaux, said of Exaggerator. “There wasn’t any real serious bumping but (jockey) Kent (Desormeaux) felt there was one point at the three-eighths where he really had to shut him down and re-engage. Nyquist is just a great horse and we’re just going to have to keep coming at him and see if we can get by him.”
Trainer Steve Asmussen was extremely proud of how his charge Gun Runner held for third after rating next to Nyquist through the wicked Derby fractions but said he would wait until the son of Candy Ride went back to the track on Wednesday before making a decision on the Preakness.
“From the three-eighths to the quarter pole I actually thought (Gun Runner) was going to win. Nyquist is just a very special horse,” Asmussen said. “I’m very pleased with how he came out of the race physically but I want to give how hard he ran the respect it deserves. I don’t want to pretend that I know how much it took out of him until I go back to the track with him.”
Kiaran McLaughlin said Sunday that multiple graded stakes winner Mohaymen was well after his fourth-place effort in the Kentucky Derby but would not press on with the son of Tapit in either the Preakness or Belmont Stakes.
“We’re going to regroup and probably point toward the Travers Stakes (at Saratoga in August) with probably something before that,” McLaughlin said. “He didn’t break real sharp (in the Derby) and got shuffled back but he ran very well. Obviously, Nyquist is just a special horse, a great horse.”
O’Neill said Saturday night he was unsure whether Nyquist would have a timed workout between the Derby and Preakness, but owner Paul Reddam said Sunday he expected his colt to just have some light maintenance training leading up to his next challenge.
“I would expect his training schedule to be pretty light between now and the race because he certainly is very fit,” Reddam said. “He has a habit where ... he just kind of measures the wire and uses as much energy as is needed to get there. You don’t kneed to win by 4 when you can win by 1 ¼ comfortably.”
Others expected to challenge Nyquist in the Preakness include ninth-place Derby finisher Lani, Laoban, Cherry Wine, Stradivari and Uncle Lino. Other horses under consideration for the Preakness include Suddenbreakingnews, fifth in the Derby; and Sharp Azteca, winner of Saturday’s Pat Day Mile.