Just one year after American Pharoah finally ended a drought of 37 years by winning the Kentucky Derby and going on to secure the elusive Triple Crown, thereâ€™s a strong feeling in the hearts of many in American racing that another sweep of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes could be imminent.
The new hope is Reddam Racingâ€™s unbeaten Nyquist, who scored a better-than-it-looked 1 Â¼-length triumph last Saturday in the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands at Churchill Downs. The race was over at the top of the stretch when Nyquist spurted clear and easily turned back rival Exaggerator, who is now 0-for-4 against the Derby winner, to win the Run for the Roses.
It was a beautiful performance by Nyquist, whose winning time of 2:01.31 fits easily among the top 20 figures in 142 runnings of the Derby. The final time and his overall effort are more impressive when one considers that he chased rapid fractions of :45.72 for a half-mile and six furlongs in 1:10.40. It was an impressive effort in an era in which free-running sprinters are excluded from the race by the distance-weighted â€œRoad to the Kentucky Derbyâ€ point systems.
Just as emphatic as Nyquistâ€™s Derby victory was the triumph 24 hours earlier by Cathryn Sophia in the Longines Kentucky Oaks on Derby Eve. While heavy pre-Oaks favorite Songbird, the untested champion filly of 2015, was not in the starting gate because of a recent fever, Cathryn Sophia was so impressive at the Oaksâ€™ mile-and-an-eighth that she prompted many observers to look anxiously down the road when the Oaks winner and the unbeaten champ might meet head-to-head.
Business continued to be brisk beneath Churchill Downsâ€™ Twin Spires on the first weekend in May as the Derby attracted 167,227 fans â€“ second only to last yearâ€™s record 170,513 â€“ and the Oaks set an attendance record for the second year in a row with a gathering of 124,583.
Now, some moments of note from Kentucky Derby and Oaks Days of 2016:
A Perfect Team: Not only is Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist perfect in eight career races, his team of owner Paul Reddam, trainer Doug Oâ€™Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez has a spotless record in the Derby and Triple Crown. The trio won the 2012 Derby with Iâ€™ll Have Another and also took that yearâ€™s Preakness before injury knocked the colt out of the Triple Crownâ€™s final jewel, the Belmont Stakes. Nyquist is the only other Derby starter for any and all of the three, and will be a strong favorite to extend that perfect run in the Preakness on May 21 at Baltimoreâ€™s Pimlico.
Perfect Servis: Trainer John Servis, who saddled Cathryn Sophia to win the Oaks, is now 2-for-2 in the biggest races at Churchill Downs. Servis won the 2004 Kentucky Derby with unbeaten Smarty Jones.
Doubter No Mo: Count this writer among the many who wondered if a son of one-time 2-year-old champion Uncle Mo had the right stuff to win at the Derbyâ€™s demanding mile-and-a-quarter. You can also put him in the column of Uncle Mo believers. The young sire was knocked out of his bid for Derby glory by illness in 2011, but the effort by the star of his first crop of youngsters in the Derby provided strong evidence that Nyquist will be tough in the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes if he can get past the Preakness in just over a week. And, of course, interest in his sireâ€™s talent in the breeding shed will soar even higher now that Nyquist owns the Derbyâ€™s roses.
Not A Rivalry â€˜Til You Beat Him: The Desormeaux brothers â€“ jockey Kent and trainer Keith â€“ were anxious for a rematch after a big late charge by Exaggerator fell just 1 1/14 lengths shy of catching Nyquist. But Exaggerator had things mostly his way in the Derby as he rallied from 15th behind a hot pace but still couldnâ€™t catch the winner who had chased the pace throughout. Exaggerator is now 0-for-four in races against Nyquist. The rivalry between these Southern California-based rivals is, at this point, not exactly Affirmed vs. Alydar. Exaggerator must find a way to turn the tables in the Preakness, but the Triple Crownâ€™s second jewel is a race that would seem to play toward the Derby winnerâ€™s talents and running style.
Biggest Runs (Non-Winners): Gun Runner (third) and Suddenbreakingnews (fifth, beaten a head and a nose for third) turned in runs that indicated each could be a Triple Crown factor as they move on in the Triple Crown series. The former had the lead turning for home but ran out of gas after prompting the hot pace. Suddenbreakingnews overcame significant traffic woes to be flying at the finish. The guess here is both will win some big races not far down the road.
The Name Game: Those who are nervous about naming horses after human beings saw reason to re-think that strategy in both the Derby and Oaks.Nyquist is named for National Hockey League star Gustav Nyquist of the Detroit Red Wings, while Oaks winner Cathryn Sophia was named in honor of the daughter of Cash Is King LLCâ€™s managing partner Chuck Zacney.
Easy Game: After decades during which Kentucky Derby favorites rarely found their way into the winnerâ€™s circle, Nyquist was the fourth consecutive betting favorite to win the Kentucky Derby.
Who was the last non-favorite to win the Derby? Iâ€™ll Have Another for Reddam, Oâ€™Neill and Gutierrez. And now Nyquist has the solid gold trophy that goes to the Kentucky Derby winner and his team is taking aim on Seattle Slew.
Slew, youâ€™ll recall, was the only one of 12 Triple Crown winners to make it through that series with an unbeaten record. Nyquist is now just two wins away from joining him on that pedestal. VT
Photos by Coady Photography | Churchill Downs