LOUISVILLE, Ky. – So, what’s going to happen at Churchill Downs late Saturday afternoon? Which of the 20 3-year-olds in this unusually diverse bunch will earn the solid-gold trophy?
There’s an undefeated favorite, two front-runners, a handful of stalkers and an inordinate number of deep closers (nine) and grays (five). There’s a maiden, a colt that’s never run on dirt and a Japanese shipper. There are three sons of North America’s leading sire, Tapit, and two sired by the world’s hottest young stallion, Uncle Mo. Jockey Victor Espinoza, on long shot Whitmore, is seeking an unprecedented third consecutive Derby victory. Keith and Kent Desormeaux could be the first trainer-jockey brother combination to win it.
From 1980-99, every Kentucky Derby favorite lost, but in the past 16, seven of them won, including the last three years. That won’t keep most handicappers from seeking a price horse to fatten the wallet and glorify the ego.
J. Paul Reddam, Nyquist’s owner, understands why. “I think it’s just the gambler’s mentality,’’ he said. “You’re always trying to look for value and beat the favorite. If I weren’t betting the way I’m going to be betting, I’d be betting against Nyquist. Why would you want to be on the 3-1 favorite?”
Why not, if you consider him the most logical winner and can’t make a strong case for anybody else? I’ve hit juicy prices on Derby Day — Unbridled (10-1, 1990), Lil E. Tee (16-1, 1992) and Monarchos (10-1, 2001) — along with favorites Street Sense (9-2, 2007) and Big Brown (2-1, 2008). I had Monarchos and Orb (2013) in the future book, too, so I’ve had golden moments. And too many embarrassing ones.
I foolishly ignored Fusaichi Pegasus, Smarty Jones, Barbaro, California Chrome and American Pharoah. Two years ago, I went against my gut feeling that Chrome was a standout and stabbed with Intense Holiday, who plodded home 12th.
I won’t do that this time, although I wouldn’t be shocked if banking on Nyquist backfires. He’s the proven class of the field, with high cruising speed, versatility and grit. He’s won four Grade I’s at four tracks in three states. None of his rivals has a resume approaching that.
Reddam, trainer Doug O’Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez know the drill. Four years ago, they swept the Derby and the Preakness with I’ll Have Another, who was scratched the day before the Belmont Stakes with a career-ending tendon injury.
“Nyquist is very mature,” Gutierrez said, “and he gives me confidence that I can place him anywhere.’’
Expect Nyquist, breaking from post 13, to sit third behind Danzing Candy and Outwork, with Mohaymen and Gun Runner not far behind. I don’t think the pace will be fast, which will create problems for the legion of closers. I think Nyquist will be battling Mohaymen and Gun Runner in midstretch before edging clear by maybe a length, with Gun Runner second and Mohaymen third.
I’ll put $20 to win on Nyquist and box him in exactas with Gun Runner, Mohaymen and Mor Spirit. I’ll hedge with the Kentucky Oaks-Derby double, using Rachel’s Valentina, Weep No More, Cathryn Sophia, Land Over Sea and Lewis Bay with Nyquist, Gun Runner, Mohaymen and Mor Spirit.
“To speak Californian for a moment,’’ Reddam said, “there’s a really good vibe in the barn.’’
Like, I’m feeling it, too, man.