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Kentucky Derby: Can Nyquist handle Churchill Downs’ distance?

Exercise rider Jonny Garcia takes Nyquist over

Exercise rider Jonny Garcia takes Nyquist over the track during training for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 3, 2016 in Louisville, Ky. Credit: Getty Images / Rob Carr

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Everyone seeks perfection, yet when they find it, they look for flaws. It’s a human thing. No race is overanalyzed more obsessively than the Kentucky Derby, and whenever an undefeated horse shows up, handicappers probe endlessly for weaknesses, real or imagined.

For weeks, many alleged experts have been trying to find holes in California trainer Doug O’Neill’s 7-for-7 colt, Nyquist, so they can beat him at a nice price. As former Newsday racing writer Ed Comerford liked to say, “You don’t get a medal for picking the favorite.’’ And if you’re right, it doesn’t pay much.

O’Neill understands. “If I’m handicapping, I look for some value, too,’’ he said Tuesday morning at Churchill Downs.

His father was a horseplayer, and not a very good one, according to his son. Like most unsuccessful bettors, the elder O’Neill undoubtedly shredded thousands of tickets after convincing himself that the chalk was vulnerable. So the trainer of 2012 Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another accepts the skepticism and doesn’t take it personally. Well, maybe just a little.

“I guess I’m guilty of being a contrarian, too,’’ O’Neill said. “I think that’s the beauty of all sports in that you can always find a reason to knock a team or a horse that’s on a roll. That doesn’t bother me.

“It does bother me when I read an article and they’re knocking Nyquist. It’s like they’re knocking your family member. But I have no big thoughts about what people are writing about him. Nyquist has been fortunate enough to hit the wire first in all of his starts, and we’re optimistic he can keep it going.’’

Except for his odds, likely 5-2 or 3-1, there’s a lot to like about Nyquist, whom his owner, hockey fan J. Paul Reddam, named for Detroit Red Wings forward Gustav Nyquist. The son of white-hot young sire Uncle Mo has the same high cruising speed that gave a major edge to California Chrome and American Pharoah, the past two Derby winners. He’s not one-dimensional, because he can lead, stalk the pace or come from behind.

The main question is whether he can handle 1¼ miles. Even though Nyquist dominated by 3¼ lengths in his first try at 1 1⁄8 miles, the Florida Derby, his haters want to believe that another 220 yards will do him in.

To that, rival owner Mike Repole says, “Shut your mouth!” Repole admittedly is biased, because he owned Uncle Mo and loves him like a four-legged son. He also owns a son of Uncle Mo, Wood Memorial winner Outwork, who will challenge Nyquist.

True, Uncle Mo was nowhere in his only try at 1¼ miles, the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Classic, but he wasn’t himself and subsequently was retired because of a rare liver ailment. An intestinal ailment kept Mo out of the Triple Crown series, and Repole is convinced that if he had been healthy, he would have won the Derby. Maybe, maybe not, but there’s no reason to assume his progeny won’t go that far.

“A mile and a quarter,’’ O’Neill said, “they’re going to do it if they have it in them.’’

Todd Pletcher trained Uncle Mo, and he said Tuesday that he always thought he would handle the classic distances. “Unfortunately, because of his illnesses, we never really got to prove that,’’ said Pletcher, who hopes Outwork can do it Saturday in the 142nd running of the Derby. Smiling, he added, “Uncle Mo’s offspring are undefeated going a mile and a quarter.’’ True, because none has tried yet.

O’Neill was an Uncle Mo fan then as well as now.

“Uncle Mo was a brilliant racehorse whose career was cut short, but he won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and he had worlds of talent,’’ O’Neill said. “A lot of his offspring have shown talent, too. He was just a flat-out, Grade I racehorse, and it sure looks like his offspring are catching on like Pop.’’

Uncle Mo is a stallion sensation. “To have this many quality horses and be leading the general sire list with his first crop of 3-year-olds is insane,’’ Pletcher said. Besides Nyquist and Outwork, another son, long shot Mo Tom, made the Derby field. Mo’s daughters Mo d’Amour and Mokat will run here Friday in the Kentucky Oaks, the 3-year-old fillies’ Derby.

O’Neill’s brother Dennis selects Doug’s horses at yearling and 2-year-old sales. “Dennis loved the way Nyquist moved,’’ he said. “He picks out athletes that way, and the pedigree is secondary. There was definitely a buzz about the Uncle Mo babies and how they were looking like runners. Fortunately, we jumped on the hot Uncle Mo train early.’’

None of the four Derby contenders who have faced Nyquist — Exaggerator, Mohaymen, Majesto and also-eligible Fellowship — was within 1½ lengths of him at the wire. Will the extra furlong turn the tables?

Bob Baffert, who trained American Pharoah, will go for his fifth Derby win with Mor Spirit. Mr. Triple Crown isn’t questioning Nyquist’s stamina. “Nyquist, he hasn’t done anything wrong,’’ Baffert said. “Pedigree in America is so diluted now. It’s how good you are.’’

Notes & quotes: Expect a fast track for Oaks and Derby days. The forecast for Friday and Saturday: sunny, with highs in the mid- to high 70s . . . Rachel’s Valentina, the 7-2 morning-line favorite trained by Pletcher, drew post 11 of 14 for the $1-million, 1 1⁄8 -mile Oaks . . . The Derby draw is Wednesday (5:30 p.m., NBCSN).

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