Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 8, 2016

Nyquist Proves A Worthy Favorite

There was rain north of Louisville on Saturday afternoon, the sodden clouds slowly slipping south. But before the precipitation could turn the oval at Churchill Downs from a fast track into a muddy quagmire, horse racing’s grandest moment of every year came and went. A full field of twenty thoroughbreds, three-year olds all, paraded out onto the track from the paddock behind the ancient grandstands. They were greeted by the full-throated roars of more than 167,000 fans, the second largest crowd in Kentucky Derby history.

That so many made their way to the old racetrack on the south side of Kentucky’s largest city for the 142nd running of the Derby had much to do with the history that had its first chapter written at the 141st. Twelve months ago American Pharoah, under a hard ride by jockey Victor Espinoza, held off Firing Line, Dortmund and a fast closing Frosted to win the first leg of the Triple Crown. Two weeks later he pulled away from the field in the slop at Pimlico to capture the Preakness; and three weeks after that American Pharoah ended the 37-year Triple Crown drought with a dominant performance over the unique mile and a half distance of the Belmont.

The Triple Crown made the little bay colt rock star famous, and he went on to capture the Breeders’ Cup Classic last fall, establishing the “Grand Slam” of American horse racing as a new bar for future generations of three-year olds. American Pharoah’s performance was also a badly needed boost for a sport that has slipped to the fringes of the collective consciousness of sports fans, far from the central spot it once occupied back in the middle years of the last century.

Horse racing will never reclaim its old place on center stage, but the Pharoah effect still lingers. This year betting handles and attendance are up at many tracks across the land. Saturday the huge crowd started passing through the gates at Churchill Downs in the early morning, more than ten hours before the call to the post for the Derby. They filled the multiple levels of the clubhouse and grandstand beneath the track’s iconic twin spires, and poured into the infield for a day-long festival of music, overly sweet bourbon drinks, and for most in that location, no live view of any actual racing.

American Pharoah won last year’s Derby as the favorite, as did California Chrome and Orb in 2014 and 2013. Perhaps punters thought it unlikely that the favorite could cross the wire first four times in a row, for in the days leading up to the race there were many doubts cast about Nyquist, this year’s favorite. He was not even the popular choice little more than a month ago. This despite an unblemished record as a two-year old, when Nyquist went five for five.

The last of those wins was a half-length victory over Swipe in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last October, shortly before American Pharoah rode off with the first ever Grand Slam. But a close observer would have seen that Nyquist proved his mettle in capturing the Juvenile. He was bumped coming out of the gate and pushed back. That forced jockey Mario Gutierrez to take his mount wide around horses. Nyquist raced four lanes wide of the rail around the first turn and down the back stretch, and then went six wide as the field turned for home. Despite running significantly more than the mile and a sixteenth on the program, Nyquist took the lead at the top of the stretch and was never headed.

He continued his winning streak with a victory at Santa Anita in February, but that still wasn’t enough to make him the favorite in the Florida Derby on the first weekend in April. Trainer Doug O’Neill was lured to Gulfstream Park by the promise of a $1 million bonus for a win. But there Nyquist found Mohaymen, the gray son of Tapit, waiting for him as the even money favorite. Fortunately for O’Neill and owner J. Paul Reddam, no one told their horse that he wasn’t supposed to win. Nyquist ran a dominant race from gate to wire, winning by more than three lengths while Mohaymen faded to fourth.

Seven wins in seven starts and the humbling of Mohaymen made Nyquist the morning line favorite for the Derby. But still there were doubters. There was the skepticism about favorites winning four years in a row, in a race that has returned nearly $30 for a winning $2 bet in this century. There were many fans awed by the impressive performance of Exaggerator in winning the Santa Anita Stakes, and others still faithful to Mohaymen who argued that the Florida Derby result should be discarded as just a bad day. More tellingly, there were pundits who pointed to Nyquist’s lineage. He is a son of Uncle Mo, who had an impressive if brief career, but who is regarded as a sprinter. Like his son Uncle Mo won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but that was his only victory in a race longer than a mile. In the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Classic, his only try at the Derby distance of a mile and a quarter, Uncle Mo finished a badly beaten tenth.

But the fact is that whatever their breeding, none of the twenty horses that were loaded into the gate at the top of the long Churchill Downs front stretch late Saturday afternoon had ever raced the Derby distance, just as none of those who attempt the Belmont in five weeks’ time will have every raced a mile and a half (nor in that case will they ever do so again). Until the gate springs open at the Derby all of the chatter is but speculation and guessing, the unending tradeoff of hope and fear that is horse racing.

On Saturday the speedy Danzig Candy sprinted down the front stretch to claim the early lead from his far outside post position. But Nyquist, breaking cleanly from the thirteen hole, was right behind him. In his purple and white silks Gutierrez had Nyquist well in hand down the back stretch, even as Gun Runner came up on the inside. On the far turn Danzig Candy began his inevitable fade, and Gun Runner briefly put his head in front. But as they straightened for home Gutierrez asked Nyquist for another gear and the favorite responded, surging clear of the field. Exaggerator, who as late as the final turn had been far back in the pack, closed with a rush, but was decidedly too late to deny Nyquist the victory.

Now the drumbeat begins anew, as it does every year at this time. After going nearly four decades without a Triple Crown champion, could horse racing have two in a row? The answer of course is no one knows. But for two weeks at least the possibility is alive. Nyquist’s connections know that exhilarating feeling, and also just how hard it is to accomplish. Four years ago Reddam owned, O’Neill trained and Gutierrez rode I’ll Have Another. The horse was the last longshot to win the Derby, and then added a victory in the Preakness before being scratched due to injury one day before the Belmont. For now only two things are certain. One is that racing continues to bask in the glow of the last Triple Crown winner. The other is that before the rains moved in later in the evening, the sun shone brightly on Nyquist Saturday afternoon.  Doubters aside, the Kentucky Derby winner was the favorite for good reason.

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