With another win, Kentucky Derby champ erases all doubts

LOUISVILLE – The doubting of Nyquist’s superhorse candidacy ended late Saturday afternoon at Churchill Downs. No longer should the dark bay colt be analyzed with skepticism. No longer should his undefeated record be tempered by “yeah, but . . . ” muttering. No longer should we assume that life after American Pharoah is destined to be a letdown.

In the 142nd Kentucky Derby, Nyquist erased all reticence – mediocre speed figures, pedigree questions about whether he’s made for longer races, the vast shadow of Pharoah – by doing what he always does. He won. He won with amazing flair and versatility. He won with ease, it seemed.

Jockey Mario Gutierrez kept Nyquist patient during a frantic start in the 20-horse field. Danzing Candy raced to an early lead, and Nyquist didn’t strain to keep pace, flowing behind the leader and staying in the top three from the beginning. Nyquist, who still hasn’t even been passed by a horse in eight races, took over in the final stretch and held off hard-charging Exaggerator by just over one length to finish 11/4 miles in 2:01.31.

“He’s just a remarkable athlete,” trainer Doug O’Neill said. “You put him in company, and he’s just a Ferrari.”

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O’Neill joked that he was surprised Gutierrez managed to stay on Nyquist because he moves with such speed and power. The thoroughbred seems comfortable in any race. He has gone wire to wire several times in his eight triumphs. He has run wide, stayed off the pace and finished with vigor. He has stalked.

What can’t he do? Well, lose. So, yeah, he’s a Triple Crown threat.

American Pharoah captivated horse racing by breaking a 37-year crown drought last year. The reverence of Pharoah caused many to wonder whether Nyquist was truly a special horse. But now, after watching Nyquist’s smooth performance on the sport’s biggest stage, the anticipation of back-to-back Triple Crown winners will begin.

“It’s unreal,” said Gutierrez, who won his second career Derby. “No words can describe it.”

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It’s also the second Derby win for O’Neill and owner J. Paul Reddam, who named the horse after Detroit Red Wings right wing Gustav Nyquist.

Keeping with the hockey theme, the Stanley Cup made its way to Nyquist’s barn on Friday. It should have been taken as an omen.

“I’ll have another,” Reddam exclaimed in the winner’s circle, making a pun because he named his first Derby champion I’ll Have Another.

O’Neill also trained I’ll Have Another, who won four years ago. That horse went on to win the Preakness Stakes, but his Triple Crown bid ended when he was scratched before the Belmont because of a tendon injury. When asked to compare his two Derby winners, O’Neill didn’t hesitate to side with Nyquist.

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“He’s just a special horse,” O’Neill said. “He’s definitely the best horse I’ve ever been around. He’s never tired. It doesn’t seem like we’ve ever gotten to the bottom of him.”

This five-week stretch will determine whether Nyquist’s talent is as bottomless as it seems. He heads to Pimlico for the Preakness on May 21. If he’s successful there, he will go to Belmont for a June 11 race that again would elevate the sport from niche status to true international intrigue.

Not bad for a horse that, in the eyes of many pundits, left something to be desired just a day ago.

Nyquist is far from an overnight success, but in this sport, the Kentucky Derby carries incredible validating powers. Nyquist goes to the Preakness as the eighth unbeaten Derby winner in history. He arrived here wrapped in pessimism and left adorned in roses, having completed an effort that his sire, Uncle Mo, couldn’t because of illness.

In 2011, Uncle Mo was an early Derby favorite. He had special talent. He was unbeaten as a 2-year-old and remained that way until a third-place finish in the Wood Memorial. Later, he was diagnosed with a rare liver disease and couldn’t race in the Derby.

He retired to Ashford Stud in Versailles, Ky., the same place American Pharoah now resides. Now Uncle Mo has resurfaced as an accomplished stallion. Three of his offspring – Nyquist, Outwork and Mo Tom – competed in this Derby. And Nyquist just put Uncle Mo in an elite class of the youngest Derby-winning sires at age 8, joining Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox and four others.

It was a redemptive afternoon for so many associated with Nyquist, from Uncle Mo to O’Neill and Reddam getting another opportunity after I’ll Have Another’s unfortunate injury before the 2012 Belmont.

But most of all, it was an afternoon for Nyquist to cement himself as a must-see attraction this spring. He was the fastest Derby winner since Funny Cide in 2003. Nyquist was so good that Reddam could talk a little trash afterward.

After the race, Exaggerator trainer Keith Desormeaux expressed a desire for his horse to have another shot at Nyquist after Exaggerator finished a close second.

But Nyquist has beaten Exaggerator four times already, which made Reddam joke, “I would’ve thought he was sick of us by now.”

Perhaps the competition is getting ill. But Nyquist has more left.

And despite past trepidation, horse racing has another star to fascinate an audience still basking in the glow of American Pharoah.