Nyquist: puts unbeaten record on the line at Churchill Downs
PICTURE: Getty Images
Preview: USA, Saturday 11.34pm BST (live on ATR)
Churchill Downs: Kentucky Derby (Grade 1) 1m2f, dirt, 3yo
IT IS a hard act to follow, but 12 months after American Pharoah began his charge into Triple Crown immortality at Churchill Downs, the unbeaten Nyquist (Doug O’Neill/Mario Gutierrez) heads the usual maximum field of 20 lining up beneath the iconic Twin Spires for the 142nd edition of the Kentucky Derby.
Representing the team responsible for 2012 winner I’ll Have Another, the son of Uncle Mo arrives at what is billed – with only a trace of hyperbole – as “the greatest two minutes in sports” with an unblemished record. Nyquist has entered the starting gate seven times, and seven times he has won, notably in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, where he confirmed the two-year-old championship with a workmanlike half-length victory.
Nyquist, who is named after the Detroit Red Wings ice-hockey player Gustav Nyquist, also blew away then-Derby favourite Mohaymen last time out in the Florida Derby, which looked this year’s strongest trial for the $2 million Classic.
Yet despite such a fine record, the Doug O’Neill-trained colt has never been more than a lukewarm favourite for America’s most celebrated race, perhaps because the 1m2f distance is thought by many to be beyond his compass, while his speed figures – accorded not far off scriptural status in US racing circles – are nothing special.
“That’s the beauty of all sports, to knock the favourite, whether it’s a team or a horse on a roll,” said Californian-based O’Neill, speaking to the Daily Racing Form. “A lot of these horses, you’re splittin’ hairs on talent.”
On the plus side, Nyquist has won four Grade 1s at four different tracks, and the 1m2f trip is just as much an unknown quantity for his rivals as it is for him.
Nyquist tends to be forwardly placed, however, and could even attempt to make all in a race with only a couple of obvious front-runners in Outwork and Danzing Candy, both of whom are drawn wide in gates 15 and 20 respectively. Nyquist has drawn post-position 13, the same as when he won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland.
Jockey Mario Gutierrez, who also rode I’ll Have Another for owner Paul Reddam, takes the ride on the favourite, whose chief rivals – according to the betting market at least – are horses he has already beaten. Sheikh Hamdan’s Mohaymen (Kiaran McLaughlin/Junior Alvarado) ceded his position as market leader alongside his own unbeaten record with a dull display when only fourth behind Nyquist in the Florida Derby. Ignore that run, however, and the grey son of Tapit looks a serious contender indeed.
Also taking high rank in the betting are Brody’s Cause (Dale Romans/Luis Saez) and Exaggerator (Keith Desormeaux/Kent Desormeaux), who both won Grade 1 trials last month in good style: Brody’s Cause drew clear to win the $1m Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, while Exaggerator galloped through the slop to run right away with the Santa Anita Derby for the Desormeaux brothers. They were third and fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and there are those who consider that Bob Baffert’s Mor Spirit (Gary Stevens), the Santa Anita Derby runner-up, can turn the tables with Exaggerator on a sound surface.
Todd Pletcher may have won the Kentucky Derby in 2010 with Super Saver but his record in the race has become notorious: he is one-for-43. He runs Wood Memorial winner Outwork (John Velazquez), who has been working noticeably well, and Destin (Javier Castellano), who hasn’t run since capturing the Tampa Bay Derby eight weeks ago, an unusual prep for a Derby contender.
Pletcher is one of three trainers, along with Steve Asmussen and Chad Brown, who saddle two runners. Brown has a pair of outsiders in My Man Sam (Irad Ortiz) and Shagaf (Joel Rosario), the Shadwell second string, but Asmussen is sweet on Gun Runner (Florent Geroux), who won the Louisiana Derby by more than four lengths. Asmussen also runs shock Arkansas Derby winner Creator (Ricardo Santana).
American Pharoah’s jockey Victor Espinoza, who also scored on California Chrome in 2014, tries to complete a Derby hat-trick on 25-1 chance Whitmore (Ron Moquett), while Japan’s UAE Derby winner Lani (Mikio Matsunaga/Yutaka Take), another grey son of Tapit, adds some exotic interest.
Although Danzing Candy (Cliff Size/Mike Smith) faded in the mud behind Exaggerator on his most recent start, he made all to beat Mor Spirit and Exaggerator in the Grade 2 San Felipe on a sounder surface.
However, he is drawn 20 of 20 – not leaving his rider many options given his preferred front-running style. “At first you’re kind of stunned when they say 20,” admitted Cliff Size.
“But when you start thinking about it, it’s not that bad. It’s better than the one-hole, especially for a speed horse – he can come over very gradually and he won’t sit in the gate long. Actually, it might be in our favour. We’re outside of any other speed horse, so we’ll take it.”
This year’s US Triple Crown races will be shown exclusively live on ATR after At The Races signed a deal to screen five days of US network coverage for the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes meetings.
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