After seven wins, a divisional Eclipse Award, four Grade I triumphs over four different tracks and victories over every major contender that tried to better him, Nyquist still walked down the Churchill Downs track into the starting gate for the 142nd Kentucky Derby toting skepticism over his ability to prove himself the class of his generation.
The betting public bought in, sending the son of Uncle Mo to post No. 13 as the 2-1 favorite. But there was noise before the cheers of 167,227 rang out beneath the Twin Spires on Saturday, chatter that the undefeated horse would prove too slow, too stamina-deficient to end up in front of 19 rivals at the end of 1¼ miles.
The last question anyone could throw at Nyquist has been answered. When the bay colt ranged up three wide on the final turn and hit the wire 1¼ lengths in front of long-suffering rival Exaggerator in the first leg of the Triple Crown, all doubts manufactured along the way were rendered baseless.
“I feel really good for the horse because along the way over the last year he’s taken a lot of shots for whatever reason,” owner Paul Reddam grinned. “He proved all his critics wrong today.”
Already a champion, Nyquist now owns a special piece of Kentucky Derby history. In addition to joining Street Sense as the only Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winners to come back and take the Kentucky Derby, Nyquist’s masterful stalking trip in Saturday’s $2 million test made him the first unbeaten juvenile male champion to win the classic since Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew achieved the task in 1977.
His connections had been there and done this. In 2012, trainer Doug O’Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez guided Reddam-owned I’ll Have Another to victory in the Derby and two weeks later in the Preakness Stakes before injury denied a chance at the Triple Crown. As much as the team revered I’ll Have Another, there was more widespread confidence within the group about the bay colt they were bringing this year.
Nyquist came to Louisville perfect in seven career starts, a streak that included a championship-clinching triumph in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland last October. In his final Kentucky Derby prep race, he handed multiple graded stakes winner Mohaymen — the horse who had overtaken him for divisional favoritism for much of the season — his first career loss when he captured the Grade I Florida Derby by 3¼ lengths on April 2.
Still, O’Neill and Reddam heard the nitpicking from critics who said that a son of Uncle Mo out of a Forestry mare was more suited to be a crack miler than one who could reign at 10 furlongs. Yet, with every stamina-building work and gallop O’Neill put into his charge, he would see a colt begging for the chance to do even more.
“I mean, I think now it’s safe to say, (multiple Grade I winner) Lava Man is unbelievable and I’ll Have Another is unbelievable. But he’s definitely the best horse I have ever been around,” O’Neill said of his second Kentucky Derby victor. “(Exercise rider) Jonny Garcia, who gets on him every day, he’s been saying for a while now that this horse is so strong and does everything so easy and, you know, he's never tired. It doesn’t seem like we have ever really gotten to the bottom of him.
“Paul and I would talk about, ‘Can you believe that idiot just wrote that article?” O’Neill jokingly added of the criticism. “It’s the beauty of sports. You don’t want everybody picking the same team or else it’s not that much fun. But we were very confident in him.”
In the four years since I’ll Have Another took him on his first ride of a lifetime, Gutierrez has added an extra air of maturity and confidence himself. So when speedster Danzing Candy raced out of post No. 20, cleared the field and posted a blazing opening quarter in :22.58, Gutierrez calmly steered Nyquist just off the pace in second through the first turn.
Gun Runner came up the inside to track side by side with Nyquist down the backside and when Danzing Candy began to self-destruct on the far turn after carving a half-mile in :45.72, those two moved in tandem to the front with Nyquist taking command at the head of the stretch.
“We got a beautiful trip, from the start to the end of the race,” Gutierrez said. “Anybody who watches Nyquist’s races, you will see that he will not allow another horse to pass him. He’s the kind of horse who always has something left for whatever comes to him late.”
That something in the stretch of the Kentucky Derby was a hard-charging Exaggerator, picking and weaving his way up from 15th. The son of Curlin caught a game Gun Runner to get up for place honors but couldn’t close fast enough to keep him from suffering his fourth loss to Nyquist.
Final time for the 1¼-mile distance was 2:01.31 over a track rated fast. Shagaf was eased in the stretch but was reported just to be “very tired,” according to jockey Joel Rosario.
Trainer Keith Desormeaux said of Exaggerator: “He burst out of the turn and I thought we had time to catch Nyquist. He had clear running room the entire one-quarter mile stretch. He did kind of level off the last sixteenth of a mile. Maybe he ran out of training.
“But what a horse. I can’t respect Nyquist enough.”
Nyquist improved his career mark to eight wins from as many starts with $4,954,200 in earnings.
Desormeaux said he would like another rematch on May 21 in the Preakness Stakes, to which Reddam joked, “I would have thought he was sick of us by now.”
Remaining Triple Crown races
Preakness Stakes: May 21
Belmont Stakes: June 11