LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Nyquist nibbled on wet grass outside his barn as dozens of cameras fired away. Trainer Doug O’Neill had taken an early flight back home to California, but the rest of his team was back at Churchill Downs, savoring the glorious afterglow of a Kentucky Derby victory.
Owner J. Paul Reddam, assistant trainer Leandro Mora, racing manager Steve Rothblum and jockey Mario Gutierrez hung out on the backstretch on a cool, rainy Sunday morning. The weather within them was sunny, like the future of their undefeated superstar.
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“Our team had a lot of people saying they couldn’t do it, and they did,’’ Reddam said. “We happened to walk into the best horse in the crop, and Doug let him be himself.QuizQuiz: Name that horse ... or band or movie?Triple Crown near-misses in horseracing history
“Luck has a lot to do with it. The Derby happens once, and if your horse gets a tummy ache that day or doesn’t break well, they don’t let you do it again.”
Nyquist broke well, sat off Danzing Candy’s hot pace and blew open the 142nd Derby in midstretch. He was well clear at the sixteenth pole and held off Exaggerator’s late surge by 1 1⁄4 lengths. For a few strides, it looked as if the closer might get there, but Reddam and Gutierrez said they were never worried.
“I was yelling my head off,’’ Reddam said. “Then I saw Exaggerator coming, but I could see he had a long way to go. We had enough separation and I felt comfortable.’’
Gutierrez said he felt certain he had the race won. “I eased up on him a bit the last sixteenth of a mile,’’ he said, “because I knew that horse would have to be a jet to pass him.’’
Nyquist will ship to Baltimore on Monday, most likely by van, according to Mora, to prep for the 1 3⁄16-mile Preakness Stakes on May 21. Unlike the run-up to the Derby, nobody will be questioning the son of Uncle Mo’s ability to get the distance. His believers felt like Nyquist’s $6.60 win price was a bargain. He’ll be 3-5 at Pimlico, maybe lower.
“Doug said he doesn’t need to do much, so we’ll just train him lightly,’’ said Mora, a 57-year-old native of Mexico who has worked for O’Neill for 15 years.
O’Neill, Mora, Reddam and Gutierrez won the 2012 Derby and Preakness with I’ll Have Another, whose Triple Crown bid ended the day before the Belmont Stakes, when he was scratched because of a career-ending tendon injury.
For Gutierrez, this Derby was more challenging because his colt was the target. “With I’ll Have Another being a long shot in the Derby, he was under the radar,’’ he said. “This was a completely different experience with Nyquist as the undefeated favorite. But it was a good kind of pressure.’’
Triple Crown fever flared up as soon as Nyquist crossed the wire Saturday. His competition isn’t as good as what American Pharoah overpowered last year. Besides Exaggerator, 0-for-4 against Nyquist, the Maryland Jockey Club said likely challengers include Lani, ninth in the Derby; Todd Pletcher’s Stradivari; Bob Baffert’s Collected; Cherry Wine and Laoban, the Derby also-eligibles who didn’t draw in; Awesome Speed and Uncle Lino.
Others under consideration are Gun Runner and Suddenbreakingnews, third and fifth, respectively, in the Derby; Sharp Azteca and Fellowship.
When Seattle Slew swept the 1977 classics, he didn’t have much to beat, either, and he was 8-for-8 after the Belmont. Nyquist already is 8-for-8, with earnings of $4,964,200.
“I was an 18-year-old kid when I watched Seattle Slew win the Triple Crown,’’ Mora said. “And this is my Seattle Slew.’’