If seeing is believing then watching Nyquist cross the finish line first to win the 142nd Kentucky Derby had made a believer out of Dale Romans.
“I admit it, I kind of questioned what Doug was doing with this horse,” said the trainer of Blue Grass Stakes winner Brody’s Cause, who finished seventh. “Obviously, he knew what he was doing.”
Oh yes, Doug O’Neill knew what he was doing all right, planning out a path for the 2-year-old champion of just two Derby prep races at age 3.
On a glorious day before 167,227, the second-largest crowd in Derby history, unbeaten Nyquist confirmed his brilliance, stalking a sizzling pace, then pulling away in the stretch to win by a length and a quarter and spark (yikes) thoughts of a second consecutive Triple Crown.
“We’re going to need a higher power for that,” joked O’Neill afterward.
Triple Crown? For an unbeaten favorite, there sure were plenty who doubted whether Nyquist could capture the first leg. Some doubted his pedigree. Some doubted whether he could get the mile-and-a-quarter distance. Some questioned his path to Louisville.
“I questioned him not bringing the horse to Churchill earlier,” admitted Romans, whose home base is the Downs. “But Doug knew his horse.”
O’Neill also knows a thing or two about how to cover a horse with a blanket of roses. He won them in 2012, again teaming up with owner Paul Reddam to guide I’ll Have Another to wins in first the Derby and then the Preakness before a tendon injury caused the horse to be scratched the day before the Belmont.
Four years later, O’Neill had enough confidence to plot a different plan. He galloped I’ll Have Another hard before the Derby, he didn’t Nyquist. He kept I’ll Have Another on the West Coast, he sent Nyquist away from his home base. After winning the San Vicente at Santa Anita, O’Neill shipped Nyquist to Florida to win the Florida Derby. Then instead of returning to California, or going straight to Churchill, he sent Nyquist to Keeneland for four weeks.
“I love Churchill Downs obviously,” O’Neill said. “But if I could train anywhere in the Midwest, I’d train at Keeneland. I love Keeneland.”
I love Churchill Downs obviously. But if I could train anywhere in the Midwest, I’d train at Keeneland. I love Keeneland.
Trainer Doug O’Neill
Nyquist loved it, too, jogging one day, galloping the next, using the all-weather training track one day when rain postponed a work — “He didn’t miss a beat,” said O’Neill — even putting the last of his three weekend works in front of a crowd before the first race on a Friday afternoon, the final day of the Keeneland meet. Eight days later, before a bigger crowd, Nyquist put on another show.
The win brought two subjects into clearer focus. In the four years since Churchill Downs implemented its points system, Nyquist is the fourth favorite to win the race. Though No. 142 was run at a fast early pace (:45.72 for the half-mile), the race seems truer to form under the points system. And for the third straight year, the California horses appear to be a cut above. Despite his travels, Nyquist’s home base is California. Same for second-place finisher Exaggerator, who won the Santa Anita Derby.
Now the show rolls on to Baltimore for the Preakness. One story line here was the long shadow American Pharoah cast over this Derby, one year after Pharoah broke the 37-year jinx and became the sport’s first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. American Pharoah was an answered prayer.
But a once-in-a-lifetime horse for owner Ahmad Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert doesn’t have to be a once-in-a-lifetime horse for the sport. Secretariat’s Triple Crown in 1973, the first in 25 years, was followed by Seattle Slew’s Triple Crown in 1977, then a year later by Affirmed’s Triple Crown. These things tend to happen in clusters.
Nyquist has the credentials and the talent to win the next two. He showed that by overcoming a bumpy trip to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last October at Keeneland — the same day American Pharoah won the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Nyquist showed it again Saturday, winning the race that Pharoah won last year.
“He’s just a special horse,” said Doug O’Neill.
No question about it.