A mortal lock to be named the champion 2-year-old male of 2015 at Saturday night’s Eclipse Awards ceremony, unbeaten Nyquist enters the 2016 Kentucky Derby (G1) trail as the leader of his generation. But will he remain at the top of that perch with the turning of the calendar?
Trainer Doug O’Neill has outlined his “ideal” road to the first Saturday in May. Plans call for Nyquist to have two preps: after his reappearance in the February 15 San Vicente (G2) at Santa Anita, he will aim for the April 2 Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park.
The San Vicente is not a points race on the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” scoring system, since it’s a shorter event, a seven-furlong sprint around one turn. The scoring races are all contested over a route of ground, from a mile up to 1 1/8 miles (and even about 1 3/16 miles for the UAE Derby [G2] in Dubai).
Nyquist doesn’t need to worry about Derby points. He currently tops the leaderboard with 30 points, almost twice as much as his nearest competitor, Exaggerator, with 16. And there will be a treasure trove of points on offer in the Florida Derby, worth 100 to the winner alone. So from a points perspective, he can easily afford to kick off the year in a non-scoring race.
But from another perspective, I’m concerned about Nyquist’s path. He’ll have only one two-turn prep in 2016 going into the Kentucky Derby, and that’s got to give some cause for pause. Such a light campaign of a one-turn race, plus one prep over a route is reminiscent of a strategy that hasn’t worked in recent years for trainer Todd Pletcher.
The obvious parallel is with Nyquist’s own sire, Uncle Mo. Nyquist followed in his hoofsteps by crowning an undefeated championship campaign in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), but he doesn’t want to follow his sire’s trajectory at three. Uncle Mo resumed around a one-turn mile at Gulfstream Park, where he beat up on lesser rivals, and then suffered his first loss when third in the 1 1/8-mile Wood Memorial (G1).
To be fair, Uncle Mo contracted a liver ailment that subsequently ruled him out of the 2011 Kentucky Derby. But another Pletcher trainee, Gemologist, took the same path – a one-turn mile at Gulfstream, followed by a victory in the Wood Memorial – and flopped when 16th in the 2012 Kentucky Derby. A bruised foot was cited in the hitherto unbeaten colt’s disappointment.
In 2014, Pletcher used a sprint-to-route formula to greater effect with Danza. Third in a seven-furlong race in his 3-year-old debut at Gulfstream, Danza stretched out to 1 1/8 miles and romped in the Arkansas Derby (G1), and finished a barnstorming (if eventful) third to California Chrome in the Kentucky Derby.
The one-turn, plus one route schedule did work in 2008, when Big Brown trounced his opponents over a mile at Gulfstream, and again in the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby, en route to glory in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness (G1). But Big Brown was far and away the best of his crop, and my suspicion is that you’d need that kind of huge talent edge to get away with a single route prep.
Of course, the San Vicente shapes up as a much tougher, more competitive race than the Gulfstream one-turn cakewalks, and that theoretically could bring Nyquist on more fitness-wise. Still, the sticking point remains about having just one two-turn prep.
As classy and professional as Nyquist has been, he doesn’t exude the same aura as Big Brown. He figures to be tested by late-developing rivals who weren’t ready for prime time when he was winning his big races in 2015. And they’ll be toughened up by more two-turn experience this year.
Nyquist had experience over a route last year, showing a great attitude to battle home in the FrontRunner (G1) and to overcome a terribly wide trip in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. But those 1 1/16-mile races don’t offer the same Derby-honing heft as the preps in the spring. While the juvenile route races provide great education, and a solid foundation, they occur at a time that favors horses who come to hand early. That comparative advantage can be reduced, or even erased, with the passage of time. It’s the major springtime preps that serve as the real proving ground, and Nyquist will have only one around two turns – the Florida Derby.
It’s worth noting that O’Neill took a different tack with I’ll Have Another, whom he trained to win the 2012 Kentucky Derby and Preakness. He likewise had two preps, but both were two-turn races – the Robert B. Lewis (G2) and the Santa Anita Derby (G1). I should add that I’ll Have Another didn’t have the 2-year-old foundation of Nyquist, since he was sidelined by injury before he had a chance to try a route as a juvenile. At the same time, I’ll Have Another had a stout pedigree that forecast improvement with age and distance.
And that may turn out to be the rub for Nyquist, who has a different profile. As the son of a champion 2-year-old, he was bred to excel early. His mother’s side has a similar dash of precocity, with an overall tilt toward speed. Nyquist has so far lived up to his pedigree; he’ll have to outrun it to cope with the 1 1/4 miles of the Kentucky Derby.
Can the one sprint, one route schedule work for a horse like Nyquist? O’Neill has already proven that he knows how to train a Kentucky Derby winner. It would be a masterpiece if he can get Nyquist draped in the roses.
Nyquist photo copyright Breeders' Cup Ltd.