Forget becoming the next superhorse or the successor to American Pharoah.
For the past six months, Nyquist has run against a pack of skeptics who’ve tried to pick apart his credentials as a mere contender for today’s 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby.
His speed figures don’t pop the eyes, they say. His pedigree suggests he might falter over the Derby’s 1 1⁄4 miles.
All the horse has done in the face of those doubters is win — seven times in seven races against the best competition his 3-year-old class can muster. He has demonstrated a wide range of skills at an equally wide range of locations. And he will likely walk to the track as the Derby favorite today, critics or no.
His trainer, Doug O’Neill, and his owner, Paul Reddam, can tick through the questions as readily as anyone. They almost seem to relish those who tear away at Nyquist’s case.
“I think people have lost a lot of money with that strategy so far, and I hope that continues,” Reddam said. “Earlier on, he was picked on because, oh, his Beyer [speed figures] are so low. And I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. I thought the object was to beat whoever you’re running against.’ . . . The knock on the horse is now, ‘Well, we don’t think he’ll go 1 1⁄4 miles.’ Of course, no one can discern that from watching him on the racetrack.“
The others who sound most convinced of Nyquist’s quality are those who’ve tried to beat him. Trainer Keith Desormeaux, who’ll saddle Exaggerator as the 8-1 second choice in the morning line, scoffed at questions about the favorite’s legitimacy.
“He’s formidable,” said Desormeaux, whose horse has lost to Nyquist three times. “I love the way he moves. He looks like he’s in good flesh. . . . His energy looks good. But what he’s got going in my mind is his efficiency of motion. He’s got that. I’ve seen it in races, but most of all, I’ve seen it in training. That’s what bothers me the most.”
Desormeaux’s brother, Kent, has ridden against Nyquist five times and said, “My read is I’m going to need some help [to beat him]. He’s to be reckoned with. Exaggerator’s going to have to step it up.”
NBC racing analyst Randy Moss said Nyquist might lack the blinding talent of American Pharoah, who won the first Triple Crown in 37 years in 2015.
“But he’s a deserving, clear-cut favorite,“ Moss said. “It’s got a lot to do with not just his winning habit but his versatility. He can literally be placed anywhere, and that’s a big advantage.”
O’Neill, Reddam and jockey Mario Gutierrez have been here before.
They won the 2012 Derby and Preakness with I’ll Have Another, and took him to Belmont Park as a 4-5 favorite to win the Triple Crown. Then they made the wrong kind of history when they had to scratch the horse on Friday morning because of an inflamed tendon.
Reddam, a Canadian businessman who specializes in high-interest loans, remembers all too well the two phone calls he shared with O’Neill that June morning.
The first came early. “I think he just rapped it, banged it in the stall,” the trainer told him. “It shouldn’t be any big deal, but I’ll call you in a couple hours.”
The next call came as Reddam shared breakfast with family members. “No bueno,” O’Neill said simply, delivering the awful news in Spanish.
That crushing bit of luck came as O’Neill faced a wave of criticism for medication violations at various tracks. It was enough to splinter a lot of trainer-owner teams.
“I thought the group would never recover from that, coming that close,” Reddam said. “People said to me that day, ‘Oh, you’ll get back there again.’ And I thought, ‘That’s a nice sentiment to say, but you’re really out to lunch if you think we’re ever going to be 4-to-5 to win the Triple Crown again. That’s just not going to happen.’ ”
But they stayed loyal to one another, leaning on friends and choosing to celebrate what I’ll Have Another had done rather than dwelling on what he had not.
“I was very surprised about how we all handled it,” Reddam said. “We had a team luncheon a month later, and it was a celebration, not a wake.”
Less than three years later, they bought Nyquist.
CATHRYN SOPHIA WINS OAKS
Cathryn Sophia bided her time, rolled up four-wide at the top of the stretch, then pulled away to a three-length victory in the 142nd Kentucky Oaks Friday.
Cathryn Sophia paid $11.40 to win for trainer John Servis. The Oaks victory was the first for jockey Javier Castellano in the annual $1 million race for 3-year-old fillies.
Land Over Sea finished second, followed by Lewis Bay and Go Maggie Go.
Terra Promessa set the pace on the front throughout, with race favorite Rachel’s Valentina just off the lead most of the way.
Cathryn Sophia, who finished third in her most recent outing, the Ashland Stakes at Keeneland, swung out wide as the field turned for home and romped to victory in the 1 1⁄8-mile race. The Ashland defeat was Cathryn Sophia’s only loss in six career races.
Rachel’s Valentina finished sixth.