The significant prep races have dwindled to something less than a handful, but the message delivered by months of competition on â€œThe Road to the Kentucky Derbyâ€ (â€œRTTKDâ€) continues to point in one direction.
The message is simply just over three weeks out: J. Paul Reddamâ€™s unbeaten Nyquist, the reigning 2-year-old champion of 2015, should be a handful at Churchill Downs in the big race on the first Saturday in May. The horse named to honor National Hockey League star Gustav Nyquist of the Detroit Red Wings seems well-positioned to turn the Derby into a personal power play.
The son of sizzling sire Uncle Mo, himself a young phenom who was a beaten Kentucky Derby favorite, has the opportunity to continue a rare journey with a Derby win.
If the Doug Oâ€™Neill trainee wins Americaâ€™s greatest race, he will be the first 3-year-old to emerge from the Derby with a perfect record since Smarty Jones in 2004. He would be on a path previously traveled by Hall-of-Fame legend and 1977 Derby-winner Seattle Slew, who endures as the first-and-only Triple Crown champion to complete the three-race series that includes the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes with a perfect record intact.
Slew was part of a run of racing excellence in the 1970s that also featured Secretariat â€“ the American sports icon who in 1973 won the Derby and became the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years â€“ and Affirmed, who in 1978 would be the last 3-year-old to complete the rare sweep until American Pharoah ended the agonizing wait for the next Triple Crown champion last spring.
While Nyquist has a better racing record than American Pharoah at this point of their respective careers, Oâ€™Neillâ€™s colt has to work a bit harder to earn the overall respect and acclaim that was accorded to last yearâ€™s Kentucky Derby favorite. But in passing every test Oâ€™Neill has thrown at him in recent weeks, the number of Nyquist doubters has dwindled.
After winning all five of his races last year â€“ a championship season climaxed by his triumph in the $2 million Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland â€“ Nyquist is perfect in two races as a Derby-age 3-year-old this year. He notched a gritty victory over Exaggerator in his season debut in the one-turn seven-furlong San Vicente at Santa Anita. Then came a cross-country journey to Gulfstream Park to hand previously unbeaten favorite Mohaymen a defeat as Nyquist won the Florida Derby by 3 Â¼ lengths under jockey Mario Gutierrez.
Shortly after his Florida win, Nyquist shipped north to Keeneland, the site of last fallâ€™s Breedersâ€™ Cup success, to continue his Derby preparations for the owner-trainer-jockey team that won the Kentucky Derby and flirted with a Triple Crown with Iâ€™ll Have Another in 2012.
The only significant bump so far along the road to Louisville was a minor health scare upon his arrival in Lexington. A routine blood test revealed an elevated white cell count â€“ a condition that is fairly common among horses as they travel through varied climates at this time of year. After a couple of days in his Keeneland barn, Nyquist has returned to training and looked good in doing so.
Of the many admirable qualities displayed by Nyquist while he has extended his perfect racing record and lifted his career earnings to more than $3.3 million, the most compelling could be this:
The horses Nyquist has beaten during his perfect run seem to run very well when he is no longer around.
Take Exaggerator, the runner-up to Nyquist in the San Vicente who roared to a 6 Â¼-length victory over the Bob Baffert-trained Mor Spirit in last weekâ€™s Santa Anita Derby. Exaggerator could have been helped by a wet track in that race, but the romp mainly enhanced his reputation and that of absent Nyquist, who has whipped Exaggerator in all three of their career meetings.
The Dale Romans-trained Brodyâ€™s Cause, third to Nyquist in the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile, is another who has fared best when Nyquist is not around. He was dull in his first race following a winter vacation but bounced back impressively last week with a victory in Keenelandâ€™s Toyota Blue Grass to return to a prominent start among major players in the Kentucky Derby 142 picture.
Now letâ€™s consider Swipe, who had the bad fortune to meet Nyquist four times last year and finish second in them all, the last of which was the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile. Slowed by injury over the winter, Swipe is set to return to racing Saturday in the Coolmore Lexington at Keeneland. He needs a win to guarantee a spot in the Derby starting gate.
Swipe has just one win in seven races, but his last four losses have been runner-up finishes behind Nyquist. So ponder this before placing a wager on Saturday: Could you confidently wager against Swipe with a trip to the Derby on the line when Nyquist is not in the Keeneland starting gate?
From a personal standpoint, Iâ€™ve been stubbornly slow to warm to Nyquist. Mohaymen topped my Derby Top 10 (kentuckyderby.com/wager/expert-picks) since late November. But the Florida Derby run by Oâ€™Neillâ€™s colt made me a believer; although, I continue to have high regard for the likes of Gun Runner, Mor Spirit, Destin and Mohaymen.
The big show on Saturday is the $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, the final 100-point stop on RTTKD trail. The Baffert-trained Cupid will be favored, but candidates to be late-qualifying Kentucky Derby hopes include Suddenbreakingnews, Whitmore, Creator or Unbridled Outlaw.
For most of this yearâ€™s Derby hopefuls, the time from now until Derby falls on one of two distinct points: not nearly enough time or an eternity.
A good number of this yearâ€™s contenders possess pedigrees, racing records and human connections that could lead them to a Derby victory, earning with the coveted mantle of roses a solid gold trophy and purse money.
But there is little question that, with just over three weeks remaining until the biggest race of his life, Nyquist holds the advantage on his bid to a victory in Kentucky Derby 142 and to launch racingâ€™s ultimate hat trick: the Triple Crown. VT