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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.

Tiger Roll wins Grand National in photo finish

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AINTREE, England — Tiger Roll won the Grand National Steeplechase in a photo finish over Pleasant Company as Irish horses dominated the world’s most famous steeplechase at Aintree on Saturday.

A 4 1/2-mile (6,400-meter) race was won by a matter of inches in the closest finish to the Grand National since 2012, when Neptune Collonges won by a nose.

Tiger Roll, a 10-1 shot, was leading by as much as 10 lengths in the long run to the line, but only just held off the fast-finishing Pleasant Company (25-1) to win a first prize of 500,000 pounds ($710,000).

“I did have a big fear,” said jockey Davy Russell, who won the race for the first time at his 14th attempt. “It would have been heartbreaking.”

The first four horses home in the National were from Ireland, including Bless The Wings (40-1) and Anibale Fly (10-1).

It was the second National victory for both trainer Gordon Elliott, who also won with Silver Birch in 2007, and owner Michael O’Leary, who had 2016 winner Rule The World. O’Leary is chief executive of budget airline Ryanair.

“We bought the horse as a pint-sized hurdler,” O’Leary said, “but he’s got a heart of a lion.”

Russell grew up dreaming of winning the National. As a child, he erected Aintree-style fences in his garden and pretended to ride a horse over them.

“I’ve won this race thousands of times (in my head),” Russell said. “But not like this.”

David Mullins, the jockey of Pleasant Company, said he thought he was well-beaten after jumping the next-to-last fence.

“Davy was going so much better than me,” Mullins said.

That seemed to be the case as the horses made it past the elbow in the run to the line, but Pleasant Company closed in as Tiger Roll faded. It was too close to call as they crossed the line and the 171st edition of the race required a photo finish to separate them.

Total Recall went off as the 7-1 favorite but fell.

 

Baffert: McKinzie won’t run in Santa Anita Derby

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ARCADIA, Calif. (AP) McKinzie will miss the Santa Anita Derby on April 7 because of an unspecified problem.

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert confirmed the colt won’t run in the West Coast’s major prep for the Kentucky Derby due to an issue in one of his hind legs. X-rays and scans haven’t confirmed what it is.

Baffert said Saturday in Dubai that McKinzie is “definitely out,” according to multiple media reports. He says he’s being “very cautious.”

The colt edged Bolt d’Oro in the San Felipe Stakes on March 10, but was disqualified and placed second for interference in the stretch.

McKinzie was 10th on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 40 points for owners Karl Watson, Mike Pegram and Paul Weitman. The colt won the Los Alamitos CashCall Futurity on Dec. 9 and the Sham Stakes on Jan. 6.

Baffert was in the Middle East to saddle West Coast and Mubtaahij to second- and third-place finishes in the $10 million Dubai World Cup.