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Healthy, happy and still unbeaten, Nyquist heads to Kentucky

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. (AP) The numbers say Nyquist will face a daunting challenge in the Kentucky Derby, and trainer Doug O’Neill is fully aware of that.

He’s also embracing that challenge.

Of the 31 horses who have won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, only one – Street Sense, nine years ago – has won the Kentucky Derby. The other 30 champions either fell short or couldn’t even navigate the prep-race calendar well enough to get to the Run for the Roses, sometimes doomed by injury and sometimes just unable to keep getting better.

“The pressure’s off,” O’Neill said. “Numbers say you’re not going to do it. You’re coming in under the radar on that stat.”

That’s the only metric by which Nyquist will be off the radar on May 7 at Churchill Downs. He’s now 7-for-7 in his career, was much the best in Saturday’s Grade 1 Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, and has already turned a $400,000 investment by owner Paul Reddam into $3,322,600 in purse winnings and bonus money.

In other words, despite that 1-for-31 history of his Breeders’ Cup-winning predecessors, meet the Kentucky Derby favorite.

“He keeps proving people wrong,” jockey Mario Gutierrez said.

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He did on Saturday, anyway. The Florida Derby showdown of unbeatens – Mohaymen vs. Nyquist – didn’t turn into much of a matchup. Mohaymen was the 4-5 favorite but never seemed to get rolling on a track that was slowed a bit by three quick showers over the course of the afternoon. Nyquist went right to the front, and when Mohaymen approached to challenge at the top of the stretch the eventual winner pulled away in a matter of just a few strides.

Game over, in a hurry.

“We feel like it was a perfect storm of unfortunate things that happened with the track, raining earlier and then later,” Mohaymen trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said Sunday. “Basically it was very wet and we were very wide. We ran 54 feet further than the winner, but congratulations to Nyquist and their team. They had to run over the same racetrack under the same conditions and they did it better than us.”

Mohaymen came out of the race fine, McLaughlin said, which means he gets another crack at Nyquist in the Kentucky Derby.

“People thought maybe it wasn’t good to have a tough race right before the Derby,” McLaughlin said of Mohaymen, who lost for the first time in six starts. “It’s not going to be a tough race on him, so we’ll throw it out and move on.”

O’Neill, Gutierrez and Reddam were the connections behind I’ll Have Another in 2012. They won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes that year, but never got a Triple Crown chance because I’ll Have Another developed a tendon problem in the days leading up to the Belmont Stakes and was scratched a day before that race was run.

I’ll Have Another had only two preps in 2012 before the Kentucky Derby, just like Nyquist this year.

“You want to make sure you have a real fresh horse when you start thinking and dreaming Derby,” O’Neill said. “If you get lucky and win it, you’ve got a couple more races coming up quickly and you need to have a lot in the tank. That was the thought process.”

So far, so good.

“It’s all right according to plan,” O’Neill said.

Wood Memorial boosts purse to attract top horses

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NEW YORK — The Wood Memorial purse could increase to $1 million as part of a bonus created to entice the top 3-year-olds to run in the Kentucky Derby prep on April 7.

New York Racing Association officials said Saturday that the presence of any horse in the field with a previous Grade 1 or Group 1 victory would increase the purse from $750,000 to $1 million if the qualifying horse starts. In that case, the winner would receive $590,000, the runner-up would earn $190,000 and third would be worth $90,000.

The Wood is run at 1 1/8 miles at Aqueduct. The race is part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby prep series that awards 100 points to the winner, 40 to second, 20 to third and 10 to fourth. The top 20 horses on the leaderboard earn starting spots in the Derby on May 5.

Jack Van Berg dies at 81

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Jack Van Berg, a Hall of Fame trainer who oversaw Alysheba to victories in the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, died Wednesday. He was 81.

He died in a Little Rock, Arkansas, hospital, according to a spokeswoman for Oaklawn Park, where Van Berg had relocated his training base after leaving Southern California in 2013. No cause was given.

Van Berg ranks fourth all-time among trainers in North America, with 6,523 victories from 41,164 starts, according to Equibase. He had career purse earnings of $85,925,482.

In the Derby, Alysheba and jockey Chris McCarron were nearly knocked down at the top of the stretch by Bet Twice. Alysheba recovered and won despite having just one career victory before the Run for the Roses. Alysheba won the Preakness to set up a try for the Triple Crown but finished fourth in the Belmont.

As a 4-year-old, Alysheba won the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic and went on to earn the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year.

Van Berg saddled Gate Dancer to victory in the 1984 Preakness. That same year, he earned the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer.

Van Berg was elected to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1985. His father, trainer Marion Van Berg, already was there, having entered in 1970.

From 1959-77, Van Berg was the leading trainer at Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1976, he won a record 496 races and was the nation’s leading trainer, with $2,976,196 in purse earnings.

In 1987, Van Berg became the first trainer to win 5,000 races when he saddle Art’s Chandelle to victory at Arlington Park outside Chicago.

He trained in Southern California for 41 years until moving to Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Arkansas, after Hollywood Park closed in December 2013. Van Berg blamed the cities of Inglewood and Los Angeles and the state of California for the track’s closure.

“I just think it’s a pathetic thing,” he said at the time. “It’s ridiculous to let something like this that so many people love and thrive on close. They did everything they could to kill racing. I’ve had enough. I don’t like California racing anymore. I don’t like the way they run it and what they do.”

Van Berg mentored Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who began as an assistant to him.

Born June 7, 1936, in Columbus, Nebraska, John Charles Van Berg began training for his father in the 1960s. The elder Van Berg trained nearly 1,500 winners but was more successful as an owner, winning 4,691 races and $13,936,965. He was the first inductee of the Nebraska Racing Hall of Fame, and his son followed him.