From Kentucky Derby winning trainers, to Preakness rivals, to millions of racing fans wondering whether another Triple Crown awaits, it’s tough to find anything wrong with a horse who has been nothing but perfect.
Eight races, eight victories. Kentucky Derby. Florida Derby. Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Del Mar Futurity. And a 2-year-old championship.
“I haven’t seen any reason to doubt that he can go ahead and do the Triple Crown,” says Barclay Tagg, who trained 2003 Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide. “He hasn’t done anything wrong, and he’s had a lot of tries. He’s taken on all comers on both sides of the continent. How can you say he won’t go all the way?”
A year after American Pharoah ended a 37-year drought by sweeping the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, along comes Nyquist, the 3-5 favorite for Saturday’s second leg of the Triple Crown. Trained by Doug O’Neill, Nyquist drew the No. 3 post and will be ridden by Mario Gutierrez. Four years ago the two teamed up along with owner J. Paul Reddam and won the Derby and Preakness with I’ll Have Another.
Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez had a close-up view of Nyquist in the Derby. He was aboard Outwork, who ran alongside the 3-year-old son of Uncle Mo for much of the race before dropping back and finishing 14th.
“I know where he was and what he did, and how he did it,” Velazquez said. “It was very impressive. He is fast enough that he is going to be forwardly placed anyway. He (Mario) was very patient with him. He waited until the quarter-pole to give him his head, and then it was impressive. He did it very nicely.”
This time, Velazquez will try to upset Nyquist aboard Stradavari, a promising colt who won his last two races by nearly 26 lengths combined but is making his stakes debut.
Bob Baffert knows a great horse, and the Hall of Fame trainer of American Pharoah believes Nyquist just might fit the bill.
“He’s a really good horse. When you win eight in a row coming out of California, it’s like California Chrome,” said Baffert, who sends out 10-1 shot Collected in the Preakness. “Everybody was lukewarm. Then he won the Derby. Then it’s, ‘oh, he’s for real.'”
Baffert doesn’t expect his colt to give him what would be a record-tying seventh Preakness win.
“We’re here to be competitive,” he said, but “I can’t really try to talk myself into it that I’m going to blow Nyquist away and the rest of the field. He’s going to be tough to beat.”
Shug McGaughey, who trained 2013 Derby winner Orb, had his doubts about Nyquist before the Derby.
“I thought he was the best going into the race, but I had my wonders whether he could go a mile-and-a-quarter,” he said of the Derby distance. “He answered that. They got him in perfect position behind a scalding pace and that jock knew he wasn’t going to stop.”
Nyquist has won on a rain-soaked track in Florida, even though he drifted out in the stretch of the 1 1/8-mile race. He’s won at 1 1/4 miles. Every time a question pops up about his ability, or breeding, the speedy colt answers with a resounding victory.
“He’s fast, really fast and he stays out of trouble,” Baffert said. “He has a winning attitude. Horses like that are tough. It’s pass me to win. I’d probably be surprised if he didn’t win (the Preakness).”
Team Nyquist is confident, but only because the horse is showing them he’s feeling great and ready for another winning effort. O’Neill says Nyquist is the best horse he’s ever had, and that includes I’ll Have Another.
“Nyquist is just a tad more special, the way he carries himself, the way he acts around the barn,” he said. “Just his whole presence is very unique and we’re all feeding off that. … It’s a really good vibe and we realize this could be the last time we have a horse like this so we’re enjoying every moment of it.”
Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux will be aboard Derby runner-up Exaggerator, the 3-1 second choice but a four-time loser to Nyquist. He thought he had him in the San Vicente, but Nyquist came out on top.
“When I tackled him in the San Vicente coming to him twice the speed that he was going, he just jumped into the forward speed with me,” Desormeaux said. “I was like, whoa, who is this guy? So, he’s just very talented.”
Former jockey Richard Migliore believes Nyquist’s style resembles 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed.
“He’s workmanlike,” Migliore said. “I see how he does things and he always finds more. Every time there’s a challenge he meets it and that’s what Affirmed did. Affirmed wasn’t that classy, he just did what needed to be done all the time. He looks like a dream horse for a jockey.”
While Tagg thinks winning the Preakness will be easier than the Derby for Nyquist, he brought up a test that has yet to develop — a head-to-head stretch duel.
“He hasn’t been in a dogfight,” Tagg said.