Nyquist wins 2016 Kentucky Derby

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The racing world wondered if there was a worthy successor to last year’s Triple Crown champion American Pharoah.

Enter Nyquist.

The bay colt who lacks any distinctive markings won the Kentucky Derby by 1 ¼ lengths on Saturday, improving to 8-0 in his career as the fourth consecutive favorite to win the race.

Ridden by Mario Gutierrez, Nyquist ran 1 ¼ miles in 2:01.31. The 3-year-old colt became the eighth unbeaten winner in the race’s 142-year history, and the first since Big Brown in 2008. He paid $6.60, $4.80 and $3.60 as the 2-1 favorite in the full field of 20 horses.

“We got a beautiful trip from the start to the end,” Gutierrez said.

Nyquist delivered a second Derby win for Gutierrez, trainer Doug O’Neill and owner J. Paul Reddam. The Southern California-based team was behind 2012 Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another.

“This is such a special horse,” O’Neill said. “You can see it in his eye on a daily basis and he’s such a professional. Any human sport, he’d be the top-notch athlete. He’s just first class.”

Nyquist enjoyed a perfect trip over the Churchill Downs dirt in front of 167,227, the second-largest crowd in Derby history. The colt broke well out of the 13th post and showed some early speed getting away from the gate. Gutierrez eased Nyquist back to let speedster Danzing Candy take the lead going into the chaotic first turn.

“His run was awesome,” Reddam said. “Obviously, we were going to take it to ’em. I love the way that we fired out of there and he sat behind Danzing Candy. This horse, he’s really something. We’re just really lucky to be a part of that.”

Nyquist stayed just off the lead and Gutierrez kept him in the clear, steering him to the outside on the final turn. Nyquist and Gun Runner overtook tiring leader Danzing Candy at the top of the stretch.

“I thought I had it for a minute,” said Florent Geroux, aboard Gun Runner. “He started pricking his ears back and forth at the top of the stretch.”

But Gun Runner was only in front briefly before Nyquist showed a strong finishing kick. He put away his closest rival and sped to the finish line, with Exaggerator closing but never threatening after coming from well back.

Exaggerator fell to 0-4 against Nyquist, including two runner-up finishes under the brother team of trainer Keith and jockey Kent Desormeaux.

“What a horse,” marveled Keith Desormeaux. “I can’t respect that horse enough.”

All week long, optimism had filled the air in O’Neill’s barn. The humans took their cues from the horse. Nyquist settled right in, showing an obvious liking for his surroundings.

“You just felt there was no way you could be nervous because you just felt like you were going in the gym with Kobe Bryant,” O’Neill said. “You just knew he was going to figure out a way to pull it out at the end and he did. Mario gets a lot of credit, too. What a ride, what a ride.”

Nyquist began Derby day with a visit from the Stanley Cup, which he playfully took a nibble at. Fitting, since he’s named for Detroit Red Wings player Gustav Nyquist. Reddam is a fan of the NHL team and O’Neill was born in Michigan.

The bay colt is from the first crop of sire Uncle Mo, who never got the chance to run in the Derby after being the early favorite for the 2011 race. He was scratched the day before with a stomach illness. Uncle Mo had two other offspring in this year’s race: Mo Tom and Outwork.

“Congratulations to Nyquist, he’s still undefeated,” said Kiaran McLaughlin, who trains Mohaymen. “He’s a star. I don’t know about the Triple Crown, but we’ll have a great year.”

Exaggerator returned $5.40 and $4.20, while Gun Runner was another 3 ¼ lengths back in third and paid $6 to show.

Mohaymen finished fourth and Suddenbreakingnews was fifth.

Destin was sixth, followed by Brody’s Cause, Mo Tom, Lani and Mor Spirit, trained by Bob Baffert, who guided American Pharoah last year. My Man Sam was 11th, followed by Tom’s Ready, Creator, Outwork, Danzing Candy, Trojan Nation, Oscar Nominated, Majesto and Whitmore. Shagaf didn’t finish.

American Pharoah became racing’s first Triple Crown champion in 37 years. The sport has had only one pair of back-to-back Triple Crown winners, Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978.

Now Nyquist is the only horse in position to replicate the feat.

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.