By Kevin Martin
When American Pharoah crossed the wire first in last year’s Belmont Stakes, he became the first horse in thirty-seven years to sweep America’s premier stakes races for 3-year-old thoroughbreds: the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont. The five week test is the most difficult feat in horse racing, only twelve colts have completed the triple since Sir Barton became the first to sweep the series in 1919. As we approach the Kentucky Derby, there is one contender in this year’s crop of 3-year olds that has the resume to potentially match American Pharoah’s improbable feat of 2015.
Nyquist will enter the Kentucky Derby on May 7th with an undefeated record and the best chance to earn an immortal place in history as the thirteenth Triple Crown winner. Last year, in his 2-year old season, Nyquist followed his first win at Santa Anita Park in California with four straight graded stakes victories capped by his most impressive win so far in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in October. Running against the country’s best 2-year-olds, he was bumped by another horse early in the race and stuck very wide in both turns resulting in the substantial ground loss. In spite of the trouble, he took the lead in the stretch and won by half a length. The third place finisher in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Brody’s Cause, recently won the Bluegrass Stakes. Exaggerator finished fourth and recently won the Santa Anita Derby. Both are expected to be among the prime contenders in the Kentucky Derby.
Nyquist made his 3-year old debut in February in the seven furlong San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita. He set a swift pace and turned back a challenge from Exaggerator to win by one and a half lengths. He returned to the races in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park in March where he faced the undefeated Mohaymen, winner of four straight graded stakes races in New York and Florida. Many believed this was the race where Nyquist would finally meet his match. Shipping across the country from California and running in the 1 1/8th mile Florida Derby with only one race under his belt for the year seemed too tall an order. Nyquist removed any doubts about his status as the best 3-year-old colt in the country with a decisive and seemingly easy victory. From there he shipped to Kentucky where he is currently preparing for the Derby.
It’s not just the perfect record that makes Nyquist the best chance for another Triple Crown winner, it’s the way he wins his races. While he has dominated the competition at his best, he has shown determination and perseverance when things don’t go his way as was the case in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. In his seven career races he has broken cleanly from the gate and has been on or near the lead by the time the field reaches the backstretch. Perhaps Nyquist’s most valuable attribute is his ability to adapt to different race scenarios. He can set or run close to a fast pace and still finish strong as he did in his races as a 2-year-old and his 3-year-old debut in the San Vicente Stakes. He fell back to eighth place in the early part of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and ran patiently behind horses before accelerating when his jockey urged him to make his move as they turned into the stretch. In his most recent start in the Florida Derby, he took the lead early, set a moderate pace and cruised home a winner with little encouragement required from his jockey.
Nyquist’s human connections, trainer Doug O’Neil and jockey Mario Gutierrez, have been down this road before. Four years ago, I’ll Have Another won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness before scratching from the Belmont Stakes because of injury. Doug O’Neil had Nyquist run only twice leading up to the spring races and will presumably enter the Triple Crown series with fresh legs – a key if he runs in all three races.
Some have questioned Nyquist’s pedigree and his ability to win at the longer races that comprise the Triple Crown. His sire, Uncle Mo, was a 2-year-old champion but injury forced him out of the Kentucky Derby and he never registered a win beyond 1 1/16th miles in his eight race career. On paper, Nyquist appears to be bred as a sprinter with the classic distances of the Triple Crown beyond his reach. The major contenders lining up against Nyquist, who have been no match on the track so far, have bloodlines for the distance. Exaggerator and Brody’s Cause have finished behind Nyquist in races but their sires (Curlin and Giant’s Causeway) had brilliant careers that included high profile wins in races at 1 1/4 miles and beyond.
Bloodlines aside, Nyquist has done everything right so far where it counts: on the race track. Can he follow American Pharoah as the thirteenth Triple Crown winner in American thoroughbred racing history? The odds are clearly against it as it requires both transcendent talent and an improbable 5-week run of racing luck. Nyquist has raced seven times at four different racetracks from one coast to the other against a talented and classy lot of 3-year olds. He has ended up in the winner’s circle every time. If any colt can sweep the Triple Crown in 2016 it is Nyquist.