It took eight races over the span of nearly 12 months to craft Nyquist’s championship résumé, eight races that featured five Grade I victories over five different tracks on both coasts and in between.
Fair or not, it has taken only two races to undo much of that wonderful reputation. That an unbeaten Kentucky Derby winner can go from the pinnacle to fighting to remain the best of his class is the ultimate testament to Thoroughbred racing’s fickle ways. But after back-to-back losses to Exaggerator in the Preakness Stakes and Grade I Haskell Invitational, the divisional crown that once sat with authority on Nyquist’s forelock has become a jump ball put into play.
One race can go a long way toward bringing it all back full circle. While there will still be crucial moments to come after Saturday’s Grade II, $1.25 million Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing, a win by Nyquist against a field that features his longtime rival can pretty much swing the pendulum of power back into his vise grip.
“I’d be lying to say I think we can get beat on Saturday and still be the 3-year old champion,” trainer Doug O’Neill said.
As the last major race for straight 3-year-olds before the Breeders’ Cup World Championships takes place at Santa Anita Park Nov. 4-5, the 1 1/8 -mile Pennsylvania Derby has a make-or-break feel for some of its key contenders. And in the aftermath of his 1¼-length win over Exaggerator and 18 others in the Kentucky Derby — his eighth win in as many starts at that point — it would have been goofy to think Nyquist would reach this point in the season with his stature as tenuous as any in his class.
After watching Nyquist fade to third and fourth, respectively, in the Preakness and Haskell while getting pressed into early speed duels, O’Neill and owner Paul Reddam decided to go back to the drawing board to help the son of Uncle Mo regain his footing. They sent him to San Luis Rey Training Center in Southern California, about 45 minutes away from Del Mar, to allow him to train in a peaceful setting as he went through a growth spurt. At the track, O’Neill said the colt’s competitive juices never stopped firing.
At San Luis Rey, the veteran conditioner said he saw a horse who was finally able to shut off mentally while allowing his body to recover and catch up.
“We decided after the Haskell he was going through a little growth spurt where he had gotten tall and gotten a little light on us and we decided he needed a tranquil setting where he could still get some cardio but not be overwhelmed with the stress of what racetracks can sometimes do,” O’Neill said. “He’s really flourished, he’s put on a lot of weight.
“At San Luis, there have been mornings when it’s been just him and a few others on the track. I couldn’t be happier with the way he’s been able to train and not have to have that competitive button pushed on a daily basis. He’s not an overly excitable horse but on the track if he’s galloping and a worker comes up inside him, it’s hard for Jonny (exercise rider Garcia).”
So confident was O’Neill in Nyquist’s ability and early speed that he says he gave jockey Mario Gutierrez instructions to go to the front no matter what in the Preakness — a failed strategy that he takes the blame for. With a similar plan going awry again in the Haskell, O’Neill says the plan now is to let Nyquist have a target to run at instead of forcing the issue up front. He cited the colt’s off-the-pace rally to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last October as proof that being near the lead is not the end-all, be-all for his success.
“I’d definitely like to see him off the pace,” O’Neill said. “We see so many athletes in so many sports where speed kills, and I really thought Nyquist’s speed away from the gate was such a huge asset and we really tried to take advantage of that. But … he taught us — and we’re finally listening — that you break good and get good position, but he does not need the lead.”
Nyquist is not alone in having something to prove Saturday. As brilliant as Exaggerator looked racing over sloppy tracks in the Preakness and Haskell, he has to prove he is not a wet-track wonder as he finished 11th in both the Belmont Stakes and Travers Stakes contested over fast tracks.
And while Arrogate had jaws dropping when he captured the Travers in record-setting fashion, that was the first graded stakes try for the son of Unbridled’s Song and he would likely have to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic to put himself in the picture for divisional honors.
“Exaggerator is a really top horse. I would think those two (he and Nyquist) are battling for top 3-year-old,” O’Neill said. “We are thinking we need to bring a big race Saturday to reclaim being the top 3-year-old.”
What: Graded stakes race for 3-year-olds
Where: Parx Racing in Bensalem, Pa.
When: 5:45 p.m.
Purse: $1.25 million (Grade II)
Distance: 1 1/8 miles
Favorite: Nyquist (5-2)
Pennsylvania Derby field
1 Awesome Slew (10-1)
2 Exaggerator (9-2)
3 Summer Revolution (8-1)
4 Connect (12-1)
5 Cupid (5-1)
6 Wild About Deb (20-1)
7 Gun Runner (6-1)
8 My Man Sam (20-1)
9 Nyquist (5-2)
10 Sunny Ridge (12-1)
11 Discreet Lover (30-1)
12 Hit It Once More (20-1)