Champ Is Sharp in Season Debut, Big Step Toward Derby 142

Although the record of North American 2-year-old champions following spring’s Kentucky Derby remains less than sparkling, there is always a palpable sizzle in the air when the reigning champ steps into the starting gate for the first time as a 3-year-old.

The 2015 juvenile champ is Reddam Racing’s unbeaten Nyquist, who won all of his five starts in 2015 and opened the New Year with an impressive romp on Monday in the $200,000 San Vicente (Grade III) at Santa Anita.

On the heels of American Pharoah’s first American Triple Crown since 1978, one would think that the American racing public might rush to embrace an unbeaten 2-year-old champion bidding to pull-off the first back-to-back Triple Crowns since Seattle Slew and Affirmed won theirs in 1977 and ’78.

That has not been the case so far, but the Presidents Day victory by Nyquist was impressive enough to tip a few doubters in his direction. His season-opener was, in a word, dazzling.

Unbeaten 2-year-old champion Nyquist (right) held off Exaggerator in his 2016 debut in the Santa Anita’s San Vicente. Photo by Bob Benoit Photography

Unbeaten 2-year-old champion Nyquist (right) held off Exaggerator in his 2016 debut in the Santa Anita’s San Vicente. Photo by Bob Benoit Photography

Nyquist broke sharply from his rail post as the odds-on favorite in the seven-furlong San Vicente, was pressed by Sheikh of Sheiks for more than a half-mile and then was engaged by second choice Exaggerator, a well-regarded two-time stakes winner, at the head of the stretch. It looked for a moment as if Exaggerator might make a fight out of the early-season stop on the Road to the Kentucky Derby point system schedule, but the Doug O’Neill-trained champ had plenty left. Jockey Mario Gutierrez guided Nyquist home 1 1/2 lengths clear of Exaggerator.

Nyquist’s winning time was 1:20.72, the third-fastest clocking in San Vicente history.

The trio in the reigning champion’s corner –  owner John Paul Reddam, O’Neill and Gutierrez – is well remembered for its success in 2012 with I’ll Have Another. That colt won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but missed a Triple Crown bid when an injury knocked him out of its final jewel, the Belmont Stakes.

After Monday’s sparkler by Nyquist, O’Neill was beaming – and deservedly so.

 “I hit the horsey lottery,” O’Neill exclaimed. “I hit the Powerball of 3-year-olds.”

While talking about impressive numbers, Monday’s best could have been this one: a second quarter time of 21.99 seconds.

Despite that sizzling quarter-mile inside a rapid 44.49-four-furlong clocking, Nyquist had plenty of gas left in the tank to hold off a quality opponent and Kentucky Derby player in Exaggerator.

“Goodness gracious, can anyone not be a believer in Nyquist now?” asked Keith Desormeaux, trainer of the runner-up. “That was an awesome race.”

Non-believers were more plentiful 24 hours earlier, when Nyquist ended up as the third choice when Pool Two of Churchill Downs’ Kentucky Derby Future Wager closed a three-day run. The popular Mutuel Field wager, which includes all 3-year-old Thoroughbreds other than the 23 individual horses in the pool’s 24 wagering interests, closed as the 5-2 favorite. But it was another unbeaten colt, Shadwell Stable’s Holy Bull (GII) winner Mohaymen, who was the clear choice among individual horses at 4-1, while Nyquist was the overall third choice at 7-1.

While Nyquist fans could perceive the odds on their hero as a sign of insufficient respect for an unbeaten champion, the suggestion here is that they should be deliriously happy with their Pool Two odds. Should Nyquist notch an impressive win in what is expected to be a two-race pre-Derby campaign, that 7-1 win ticket could look mighty generous on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.

Given the record of recent decades, one should expect any Derby fan to look at any crop’s 2-year-old champion with a raised eyebrow. The collective record of juvenile champions since reigning title-holder Spectacular Bid won the Derby in 1979 does little to encourage.

Pedigree provides one reason for caution in assessing Nyquist’s chances for Derby success. Reddam’s colt is by the very successful first-year sire Uncle Mo. But Uncle Mo was a 2-year-old.

Champion that, despite the best efforts of trainer Todd Pletcher, failed to make it to the Kentucky Derby starting gate. Uncle Mo’s sire, Indian Charlie, was the unbeaten Kentucky Derby favorite in 1998 but finished third in the big race to his Bob Baffert-trained stablemate Real Quiet. He never raced again.

Another strike against Nyquist would be the dismal overall record of 2-year-old champions in Derbys of recent decades. While eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah pulled off the juvenile championship Kentucky Derby double last year, 2007 Derby winner Street Sense is the only other 2-year-old king to return the following spring to win the Derby since Affirmed’s double in 1978.

But the San Vicente run by Nyquist was impressive and completes a strong run in their respective 3-year-old debuts by the horses currently considered to be top contenders for the 2016 Derby. Mohaymen romped over the highly-regarded Greenpointcrusader in Gulfstream Park’s Grade II Holy Bull in his seasonal bow, and the Bob Baffert-trained Mor Spirit was an impressive come-from-behind winner of the Grade III Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita in the first race of 2016.

And for admirers of Nyquist, there’s another reason to smile: His Beyer Speed Figure for the San Vicente victory was 100, the highest rating to date for any member of this 3-year-old crop, male or female. It came in a race in which O’Neill did not figure to have his star cranked-up for his top effort.

O’Neill confirmed Tuesday that Nyquist, named by Reddam in honor of National Hockey League star Gustav Nyquist of the Detroit Red Wings, would make his next start, and final Kentucky Derby prep, in the Grade I Florida Derby on April 2 at Gulfstream Park.

The key lure for Nyquist’s planned California-to-Florida journey is a $1 million bonus available to a graduate of a Fasig-Tipton Thoroughbred sale that also wins the Florida Derby. Nyquist – a $400,000 F-T sales purchase – fits the criteria, so he’ll bid for the seven-figure bonus in the Sunshine State in a race that could feature a pre-Derby showdown with Mohaymen.

Success in the Florida Derby would likely make Nyquist the favorite for the Kentucky Derby, and a win there would set the stage for a shot to, in a language familiar to his namesake, complete Thoroughbred racing’s ultimate hat trick in the Triple Crown.

February of a colt’s 3-year-old season is a time for dreaming, but the time for the hard work is also here. The scenario laid-out in the preceding paragraph is, without question, much to ask of Nyquist. But Monday’s razor-sharp San Vicente win gives his team and fans a compelling reason to not only dream but dream big. VT