Nyquist gets back to work with easy 5-furlong move at Keeneland

Unbeaten champion and current Kentucky Derby favorite Nyquist returned to the worktab for the first time since his victory in the Grade I Florida Derby on April 2, drilling an easy 5 furlongs in 1:02.60 at Keeneland on Friday morning with trainer Doug O’Neill looking on.

With temperatures hovering comfortably in the 50s and a swarm of onlookers trailing behind him as he made his walk to the track, Nyquist was the picture of calm under exercise rider Jonny Garcia. As is his customary routine, the son of Uncle Mo broke off and proceeded to two-minute lick — an open gallop — for about a half mile before getting more serious during the remainder of the work. He clocked splits of 12 3/5, :24 4/5 and :37 1/5 during the move, with a gallop out in 1:17 1/5.

“It was really exactly what we were looking to do, just a good leg stretch and have him finish up stronger than he started,” O’Neill said. “He went great, he’s cooling out super. I’m just a super lucky guy to be part of this horse and we all realize that on a daily basis. He was so good today, so willing and he galloped out strong. I think we’ll do something similar (next Friday).”

Longer, stamina-building workouts are typical amongst O’Neill trainees, and it’s a program Nyquist has thrived in. The bay colt put in three 5-furlong moves heading into the Florida Derby, a race in which he dismissed a challenge from previously unbeaten Mohaymen and won by 3 1/4 lengths to earn his seventh victory in as many career starts.

“I think it’s good for their minds, good for their breathing, good for their strides,” O’Neill said of the workout strategy. “It’s something in lieu of working them real hard in company, I think you can get just as much out of what we did today.”

O’Neill reiterated Friday that Nyquist would have all of his workouts at Keeneland leading into the Kentucky Derby, with plans to ship to Churchill Downs the week of the race.

Owned by Reddam Racing, Nyquist is seeking to join Street Sense (2007) as the only Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winners to come back and take the first leg of the Triple Crown. The question of whether he will handle the Derby’s 10-furlong distance is one still being tossed about, not that O’Neill himself is giving in to such doubts.

The deceptively smooth way of moving Nyquist boasts has been matched by a handiness and mettle that has shut down any would-be rival. He has yet to be passed by another horse in the stretch and in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Florida Derby, he showed he could handle losing ground and traveling wide without losing any of his ability to find another gear.

“He hasn’t done anything wrong and … I thought what he did in the Breeders’ Cup, getting banged out of the gate and going wide on both turns and still winning the way he did showed a lot,” O’Neill said.

The Florida Derby marked the fourth career Grade I win for Nyquist, and he would be the richest horse ever to start in the Kentucky Derby with earnings of $3,322,600.

“He’s a special horse and we’re just trying to keep him happy, mentally sound, physically sound,” O’Neill said. “We’re just trying to keep him moving the right way.”

Alicia Wincze Hughes: 859-231-1676, @horseracinghl