The son of Uncle Mo will advance to the Preakness Stakes on May 21 as only the eighth unbeaten Derby champion after a sterling performance that will undoubtedly stir hopes for a second consecutive Triple Crown after American Pharoah ended a 37-year drought last spring. Seattle Slew (1977) is the only undefeated horse among the 12 who swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
Nyquist’s 8-for-8 brilliance says everything about the ability of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile victor and 2-year-old champion. He joined 2007 Derby winner Street Sense as the only horses to complete the Juvenile-Derby double since the inception of the Breeders’ Cup in 1984. And he will go on to Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course as a fresh horse, having made only three starts this year.
Trainer Doug O’Neill had exuded confidence since Nyquist rolled by 3 ¼ lengths in the Xpressbet.com Florida Derby. Previously unbeaten Mohaymen was among those he dusted. Mohaymen finished fourth in the Florida Derby and again in the run for the roses.
O’Neill raved about Nyquist’s ability after the colt became the fourth consecutive favorite to bring home the roses.
“It’s like going to the gym with Kobe Bryant,” he said.
O’Neill, of course, knows what to do with a major talent. So do owner Paul Reddam and jockey Mario Gutierrez. Those three formed an imposing team when I’ll Have Another swept the first two legs of the Triple Crown in 2012 only to be scratched on the eve of the Belmont Stakes with a career-ending tendon injury.
Now, they’ve done it again.
“His run was awesome,” Reddam said. “Obviously, our strategy was that we were going to take it to them. I loved the way he fired out of there.”
Reddam’s wife, Zilla, was ecstatic. “This is beyond our imagination,” she said. “We are just so happy.”
Nyquist, breaking from the 13th post position, sat comfortably behind Danzing Candy, the expected frontrunner who shot out of the starting gate for Mike Smith. When Gutierrez asked Nyquist to pounce, the colt took command early in the stretch run. It was exactly the response he expected.
“I never doubted my horse,” Gutierrez said.
And he never doubted that his mount would maintain his powerful stride for a distance he had never tried before.
“If anyone watched Nyquist’s races, you will see he will not allow another horse to pass him,” said Guiterrez. “He always has something left for another horse that comes his way.”
To the credit of Santa Anita Derby winner Exaggerator, he came with a bold run. His jockey, Kent Desormeux, riding for his brother Keith, will always wonder what might have been with a better trip. “When you see the replay, it will be obvious,” he said, referring to early congestion in the 20-horse field.
Gun Runner finished another 3 ¼ lengths behind Exaggerator.
Bob Baffert and Victor Espinoza, who combined for Derby glory last year with American Pharoah, were involved with different horses this time. They endured the same fate as also-rans.
Baffert, bidding for his fifth Derby, watched Santa Anita Derby runner-up Mor Spirit run a lackluster 10th for Gary Stevens, his Hall of Fame pilot, after breaking from post 17, the only position in the gate yet to yield a winner.
“He came away from there OK and he got a good spot going into the first turn,” Baffert said. “Then, it just didn’t happen from there. He didn’t engage. He just didn’t have anything to fire for the finish.”
Espinoza, a winner of five of the previous six Triple Crown races, fell way short in his attempt at an unprecedented Derby three-peat. Whitmore was 19th in the 20-horse field.
“It felt like he was just spinning his wheels. I felt like he was uncomfortable the entire race,” Espinoza said. “He never picked up the bridle. It’s just how it goes sometimes.”
And so Nyquist is scheduled to go on to Baltimore on Monday amid high hopes that O’Neill did nothing to dim.
“He’s a special, special horse. You can see it in his eye on a daily basis,” the trainer said. “He knows how to bring his ‘A’ game. If he was a human athlete, we’d celebrate him as a superstar.”