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.