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Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist has Triple Crown possibilities

Mario Gutierrez rides Nyquist to victory during the

Mario Gutierrez rides Nyquist to victory during the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby horse race at Churchill Downs Saturday, May 7, 2016, in Louisville, Ky. Credit: AP/ David J. Phillip

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Could it be? Have we found a worthy successor to American Pharoah?

Nyquist validated himself as a Triple Crown contender Saturday with his 1¼-length victory in the Kentucky Derby. NBC analyst Randy Moss, a very sharp handicapper, has no doubt that the son of Uncle Mo belongs in that conversation.

A few days before the Derby, Moss said something that undoubtedly stunned many people, particularly the legion of Pharoahites.

“At this stage of his career,” Moss said, “Nyquist has accomplished more than American Pharoah had.’’

That’s even truer now, because unlike the 8-for-8 Nyquist, Pharoah was not undefeated when he was draped with the garland of roses. Unlike Nyquist, Pharoah didn’t win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, which he missed because of a foot injury.

Both colts were voted 2-year-old champion, but there wasn’t much buzz about American Pharoah during the winter, and he didn’t make his 3-year-old debut until March. Nyquist, the winter-book Derby favorite, has drawn fire since last November about his supposedly deficient distance pedigree. Nyquist’s Derby also was more impressive than Pharoah’s, even though the margins were similar.

Like Bob Baffert and Victor Espinoza last year, Team O’Neill — trainer Doug O’Neill, jockey Mario Gutierrez and owner J. Paul Reddam — have been through the Triple Crown drill before. Four years ago, they took the Derby and Preakness with I’ll Have Another, who was scratched with a career-ending tendon injury the day before the Belmont Stakes.

Maybe this time things will be different, and racing will have its first back-to-back Triple Crown immortals in 38 years.

“He’s just a special horse,” O’Neill said, “definitely the best horse I have ever been around.”

Keith Desormeaux trains Derby runner-up Exaggerator, who is 0-for-4 against Nyquist. “What a horse,’’ Desormeaux said. “I can’t respect that horse enough.’’

O’Neill’s mother, Dixie Lee, was at the postrace news conference. When O’Neill, a personable and funny guy, was asked about the possibility of repeating Pharoah’s feat, he said, “Mom, can you light a candle at Sunday mass? We need some higher power there to keep this guy injury-free. That’s how I’ll answer that.”

O’Neill thinks he’s better equipped to handle the Triple Crown pressure this time. “I’m glad I’ll Have Another wasn’t the [Derby] favorite,’’ he said. “Because in 2012 I don’t know if I could have mentally taken that. I don’t know if there was enough tequila in Mexico for me to have handled that.

“But this year all of us are a lot more mature.’’

O’Neill’s brother Dennis, a bloodstock agent, picked I’ll Have Another and Nyquist out of sales. “I said to someone it felt like I bought a winning Lotto ticket four years ago,’’ Dennis O’Neill said. “And I said for someone to buy two winning Lotto tickets in one lifetime, I don’t think that’s ever happened.’’

Racing hit the Triple Crown Lotto in 1977 and 1978 with Seattle Slew and Affirmed. Maybe this time Team O’Neill can hit the jackpot. Hey, you never know.

New York Sports