He was the 8-for-8 Kentucky Derby winner, racing’s Next Big Thing, before Nyquist finished third in the Preakness. Ten weeks later, he failed in the Haskell. Back-to-back losses to his former fall guy, Exaggerator, on sloppy tracks at Pimlico and Monmouth Park dethroned Nyquist, who hasn’t raced since.
He didn’t look great in the paddock before the Haskell and showed little fight in the stretch, backing up to fourth as the even-money favorite. Had he peaked in the spring, and would he join the list of Derby winners who never won another race? On Saturday, Nyquist will get the chance to restore his reputation in the $1.25-million, 1 1/8-mile Pennsylvania Derby.
He’s the 5-2 favorite in a field of 12 that includes Exaggerator, the 9-2 second choice whom Nyquist will meet for the seventh time. Although Nyquist leads his archrival 4-2, Exaggerator would be favored at Parx if he hadn’t bookended 11th-place duds in the Belmont and Travers around the Haskell. Exaggerator is 3-for-3 on wet surfaces this year but 0-for-5 on fast tracks. There’s no rain in the forecast for the Philadelphia area, so there’s Exaggerator’s challenge.
Oddly, the best 3-year-old on the card is the 10-for-10 Songbird, the 1-2 favorite in the $1-million, 1 1/16-mile Cotillion Stakes.
A 3-year-old thoroughbred is the equivalent of a human teenager, and trainer Doug O’Neill said Nyquist is more than 2 inches taller after a “growth spurt.” Figuring Nyquist needed a break after the Haskell, he sent him to San Luis Rey Downs training center in Southern California for R & R. He’s had four mile workouts there, each quicker than the last, and O’Neill said he was doing it without being urged.
“He had gotten a little taller and a little light on us,’’ O’Neill said. “I think you’re looking at a taller, more filled out, better version, and hopefully we’ll see some positive results Saturday.”
Nyquist’s other opponents include the Bob Baffert-trained Cupid (5-1), multiple-stakes winner Gun Runner (6-1) and New York-bred Hit It Once More, a 20-1 shot owned by Bill Parcells. Expect Cupid to lead early.
Speed duels in the Preakness and the Haskell cracked Nyquist, so O’Neill wants jockey Mario Gutierrez to change tactics. “I’d definitely like to see him off the pace,” O’Neill said. “We’ve all been thinking the only way we’re going to find ourselves on the lead is if they hand it to us.”