Trainer Ralph Nicks Talks Travers, Shivaree’s Development, Kentucky Derby

The Life
Shivaree, left winning the Limehouse Stakes, will compete in the Aug. 8 Runhappy Travers Stakes for trainer Ralph Nicks. (Bob Coglianese/Gulfstream Park/Eclipse Sportswire)

Tom Pedulla is interviewing prominent owners, trainers, and jockeys for America’s Best Racing as they travel the Road to the $3 million Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. The Derby has been rescheduled for Saturday, Sept. 5, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Second-generation trainer Ralph Nicks, who will saddle Shivaree as part of an eight-horse field in the $1 million Runhappy Travers Stakes on Saturday at Saratoga Race Course, is featured this week. Shivaree, a Florida-bred owned by Fred Brei’s Jacks or Better Farm, was a runner-up to Travers favorite Tiz the Law in the Curlin Florida Derby to earn 40 Kentucky Derby qualifying points, ranking him 14th on the Churchill Downs leaderboard. His performance in the 1 ¼-mile Travers should go a long way toward determining whether he advances to the first Saturday in September.

Nicks, based in South Florida, is a former assistant to Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. He has been training on his own since 2004. It took him only one year to achieve his first graded stakes wins, accomplishing that when Cool Conductor took the Grade 3 Arlington Handicap and Grade 2 Dixie Stakes. Nicks earned his greatest victory when Caledonia Road was a surprise winner of the 2017 14 Hands Winery Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Del Mar.

PEDULLA: I see that Shivaree did not register his first victory until his fifth start. Was he a little slow to develop?

NICKS: A little?

Shivaree (Ryan Thompson/Gulfstream Park)

PEDULLA: Well, I’m being diplomatic. What happened there?

NICKS: I have no idea. He just all of a sudden ran real big and continued to hold his form. He just really started to put it together.

PEDULLA: I guess it is something that is hard to put your finger on?

NICKS: It goes with the family a bit.

PEDULLA: He finished 11th in the Blue Grass Stakes after running so well in the Florida Derby. What happened there?

NICKS: The one hole didn’t help us. He broke and he had 10 very good horses laying on top of him. Normally, he fights more toward the end and he did not that day. Normally, that is something he doesn’t do. He doesn’t quit. 

PEDULLA: Shivaree is a half-brother to stakes-winning sprinter Garter and Tie. Is distance a major question for him?

NICKS: The Florida Derby, was that a one-time good race around two turns? I guess we’ll find that out on Saturday. Saturday will answer that. His seven-eighths to a mile races have been very good.

PEDULLA: Why did you choose the Travers? You probably could have selected an easier spot.

NICKS: Well, we were going to have to ship no matter where we went from Florida. It was Fred’s choice. It’s an awfully big purse, and we knew it would not be overly filled with Tiz the Law in there over some of the other races that might have 10 or 12.

PEDULLA: Does he have to run well in the Travers for you to go on to the Derby?

NICKS: Yes, I would sure think so. I don’t think myself or Fred would want to go just to be a participant. If he runs a good mile and a quarter on Saturday in the Travers, I’m sure he’ll go. He doesn’t have to win. He needs a good race.

PEDULLA: Would you look at the Preakness if you pass on the Derby?

NICKS: If he doesn’t run a great mile and a quarter, what would make you think he will run a great mile and three-sixteenths? I’d be more inclined to look at the Pat Day Mile (at Churchill Downs) if this doesn’t work.

PEDULLA: If he does show he belongs in the Derby, what would it mean to win it?

NICKS: That’s anybody’s dream who trains horses. If you ask that question to (Bob) Baffert and guys who have won it multiple times, you’d get the same answer. Just being in there is an honor. It’s like the Breeders’ Cup. I never expected that either.

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