It’s too soon, isn’t it?
We shouldn’t be talking about this, right? Not yet. Horse racing suffered through 37 long, hard, grueling, frustrating, puzzling, crazy years before the prayers for a new Triple Crown champion finally were answered, so it seems rather premature to think, well, that the feat could be repeated just a year later.
There was an American Pharoah hangover feel to Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. It had to be a little like 1974 when Cannonade won the Derby. Secretariat had won the Derby the year before, and then he won the Preakness. And he crushed the Belmont to be the first horse in 25 years to win all three. A year later, everyone was still talking about Secretariat. Everyone still talks about Secretariat.
At this year’s Derby, people were still talking about last year’s Derby winner. And Preakness winner. And Belmont winner. People asked what American Pharoah was doing these days. They visited Ashford Stud to see him. His old trainer, Bob Baffert, went to see him. (“I think he recognized Jill,” Baffert said of his wife.) NBC went to see him. I went to see him. American Pharoah had done what so many horses failed to do. He was special.
Now we have Nyquist. He’s won all eight of his races, including the sport’s biggest race. On Saturday he became just the second Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner — a feat he accomplished in October at Keeneland — to win the Kentucky Derby, following Street Sense in 2006. Nyquist wasn’t bothered by Danzing Candy’s sizzling early pace. He wasn’t caught by Exaggerator’s late run. He just kept on trucking.
“He amazes us every day,” assistant trainer Jack Sisterson said Sunday morning while watching Nyquist graze and pose for pictures outside of Barn 41.
When a horse has won all eight of his races, it stands to reason you might think he could win two more. The skeptics took their shots at Nyquist leading up the Derby, questioning his pedigree, his ability to get the mile-and-a-quarter distance, his path from California to Florida to Keeneland to Louisville to get to the wire first on Saturday. The skeptics were silenced Saturday. The best horse won.
Winning the next two won’t be easy, of course. It never is. Plenty will reload for another shot at Nyquist in the Preakness. Exaggerator has lost four times to Nyquist, but trainer Keith Desormeaux indicated Saturday he’d like a fifth try. Louisiana Derby winner Gun Runner ran third Saturday. Despite being shuffled back early and swinging six-wide late, Fountain of Youth winner Mohaymen ran a respectable fourth.
There is also the rapid two-week turnaround for a horse that has averaged six weeks between races. Nyquist won the San Vicente Stakes on Feb. 15, the Florida Derby on April 2 and the Kentucky Derby on May 7. The Preakness is May 21.
“We did that with the Triple Crown races in mind,” trainer Doug O’Neill admitted while Nyquist was training at Keeneland. “We want to have a fresh horse.”
You need a healthy horse. O’Neill knows all about that. After winning the Derby and Preakness in 2012, he scratched I’ll Have Another the day before the Belmont, ending a Triple Crown bid. Given O’Neill’s history — he has served multiple suspensions for medication violations with his horses — eyebrows were raised, though a tendon injury was the official reason.
“Crazy things can happen,” O’Neill said Saturday.
The wheel of fortune doesn’t always spin your way. Birdstone passed Smarty Jones in the Belmont stretch to break hearts in that 2004 bid. Big Brown was eased in the Belmont, abruptly ending that 2008 bid. Both were undefeated champions that fell one race short of the crown.
Both Secretariat and American Pharoah felt the sting of defeat before the Kentucky Derby, yet both snapped extended Triple Crown droughts. Ah, but four years after Secretariat, an undefeated juvenile champion appeared to join that exclusive Triple Crown club.
“This horse reminds me of Seattle Slew,” Leandro Mora, O’Neill’s senior assistant trainer, said Sunday morning. “He’s our Seattle Slew.”
Could Nyquist be this sport’s Seattle Slew? It’s not too soon to ask.