Challenge him in a speed duel and you fade. Chase him and you don’t get there in time. He always wins — sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot — setting the pace or stalking it or coming from behind. He’s overcome bad posts, traffic trouble and slop on a track he’d never set foot on.
Nyquist is the colt everyone will have to beat in Louisville on May 7, when he’ll try to become the eighth undefeated Kentucky Derby winner and the first since Big Brown in 2008.
“Winners come in all different sizes, but he does have the ‘it’ factor,’’ Nyquist’s trainer, Doug O’Neill said. “He’s well balanced, with good manners, and very professional. He carries himself like a champion, with a lot of class and confidence.’’
Going 7-for-7, with six stakes trophies, will do that. Many doubted that Nyquist could take the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile from post 12, which he did last fall despite a hard bump at the start and a very wide trip. Skeptics figured he wouldn’t be able to ship from Southern California and overcome unbeaten Mohaymen on his home track, but Nyquist crushed him by 8¼ lengths on April 2 in the Florida Derby. As Nyquist cruised to the wire, the 4-5 favorite backed up to fourth.
The best son of white-hot young sire Uncle Mo has even better credentials than American Pharoah brought to the Derby last spring. The eventual Triple Crown hero had finished fifth in his debut and skipped the Juvenile with a foot problem.
“Nyquist was mentally mature as a 2-year-old, and we’re just continuing to see him handle things better and get physically stronger,’’ O’Neill said. “We’ve just got to keep him injury-free, and I think we’re very optimistic of what we could do this year.’’
After locking up Derby favoritism with the runaway at Gulfstream Park, O’Neill sent Nyquist to Keeneland. On Friday morning he had his first of three planned workouts there, breezing 5 furlongs in 1:02 3⁄5.
O’Neill is battle-tested in the Triple Crown, and so are jockey Mario Gutierrez and owner J. Paul Reddam. Four years ago, they swept the Derby and Preakness with I’ll Have Another before O’Neill had to scratch him the day before the Belmont Stakes because of a career-ending tendon injury. Those who believe in “the racing gods” may think they owe Team O’Neill one. They’d settle for a guarantee of a smooth Derby trip.
“Nyquist is unique in that he was a brilliant 2-year-old and I’ll Have Another struggled through his 2-year-old campaign,’’ O’Neill said. “I’m just a super lucky guy to be part of this horse.’’
Reddam, a Windsor, Ontario native, named him after forward Gustav Nyquist of the Detroit Red Wings, his favorite hockey team. Like many NHL players, the four-legged Nyquist has toughness and breakaway speed, but O’Neill pointed out one obvious difference. “Unlike most hockey players, Nyquist has all his teeth.’’
He’s punched every one of his opponents in the mouth, and their connections are wondering how they can knock him off. Exaggerator, who dominated the Santa Anita Derby last weekend, is 0-for-3 against Nyquist by a combined 14 lengths.
Trainer Keith Desormeaux will try again. When asked what made him believe Exaggerator could beat Nyquist, Desormeaux told the Daily Racing Form, “Nothing. I respect Nyquist. We’ll have fun trying.’’
Derby history is filled with superstars cursed by a historically bad day on the first Saturday in May. Hall of Famers Native Dancer (bad trip), Easy Goer (muddy track), Holy Bull (slow start) and Point Given (hot pace) are relegated forever to the “woulda, coulda, shoulda” chapter.
“Nyquist refuses to lose,’’ said Bob Baffert, who trained American Pharoah. “He hasn’t done anything wrong. We keep waiting to see if he’s not going to get the distance, but he’s so good he just keeps on going. But in a 20-horse field, so many things can go wrong.’’
Nyquist’s road to the Derby
Date | Race | Distance | Time | Place
April 2, 2016 | Florida Derby | 1 1/8 m | 1:49.11 | 1st
Feb. 15, 2016 | San Vicente Stakes | 7 f | 1:20.71 | 1st
Oct. 31, 2015 | Breeders’ Cup Juv. | 1 1/16 m | 1:43.79 | 1st
Sept. 26, 2015 | FrontRunner Stakes | 1 1/16 m | 1:44.89 | 1st
Sept. 7, 2015 | Del Mar Futurity | 7 f | 1:23.28 | 1st
Aug. 8, 2015 | Best Pal Stakes | 6 1/2 f | 1:16.84 | 1st
June 5, 2015 | MSW | 5 f | 0:56.43 | 1st