Kentucky Derby Report (2/17): Nyquist returns a stylish winner

Profile Picture: James Scully

February 17th, 2016

Nyquist made his eagerly-awaited sophomore debut and his brilliance was on full display in Monday’s San Vicente (G2) at Santa Anita. The undefeated 2-year-old champion showed speed from the start, repulsing a couple of challenges before edging away to a 1 ½-length decision, and he ran his second quarter-mile (21.99 seconds) faster than the first (22.50) en route to completing 7 furlongs in 1:20.71, the second-fastest San Vicente ever on dirt.

The San Vicente didn’t tell us anything about his Kentucky Derby chances in 12 weeks, but it’s easy to appreciate Nyquist’s talent.

Destin and Suddenbreakingnews enhanced their credentials with nice wins in the Sam F. Davis (G3) and Southwest (G3), and Frank Conversation did not disappoint as the El Camino Real Derby (G3) favorite.

San Vicente

Nyquist broke from the rail post as the 2-5 choice over four rivals and caught pressure from the outside in Sheikh of Sheikhs, a front-running winner of a 6-furlong stakes on the Breeders’ Cup Saturday undercard. The duo went head-and-head through the opening half-mile before Sheikh of Sheikhs threw in the towel.

Exaggerator, a multiple graded stakes winner at 2 who finished fourth to Nyquist in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), received the perfect stalking trip in third and advanced to challenge after entering the stretch. He had every chance to get past Nyquist, nearly drawing even with about a sixteenth of a mile remaining, but Nyquist proved too good, reasserting control late as he finished strongly.

Nyquist registered a career-best 103 BRIS Speed rating, surpassing the 102 earned for a victory in the 6 ½-furlong Best Pal (G2), and the Doug O’Neill trainee could probably beat any 3-year-old in the world sprinting on dirt.

He brings tenacity to the equation, digging in determinedly to capture his first two-turn start in FrontRunner (G1) and overcoming an extremely wide trip in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and Thoroughbred racing fans are looking forward to the next start, most likely the Florida Derby (G1) on April 2.

However, the San Vicente allows plenty of time for two more preps, which would theoretically build up Nyquist’s stamina for 1 ¼ miles in early May. That strategy worked for Silver Charm, the last San Vicente winner to capture the Kentucky Derby, and O’Neill’s lone Kentucky Derby hero, I’ll Have Another, had the benefit of two route starts at 3 before arriving at Churchill Downs.

Quality is never an issue when discussing Nyquist; the 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby distance serves as the primary topic presently. Sire Uncle Mo has a mix of speed and stamina in his bloodlines -- by noted sprint producer Indian Charlie and out of an Arch mare – and I won’t discount Uncle Mo’s chances of siring a Kentucky Derby winner if combined with the right mare. Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be the case with Nyquist.

The Kentucky-bred colt hails from a speed-oriented female family, with his dam being by the Grade 1-winning sprinter Forestry. The black-type performers in Nyquist’s immediate female family all excelled at a mile or less.

Not only is the pedigree slanted toward speed, Nyquist’s past performances illustrate an alarming difference between his sprint and two-turn efforts; he doesn’t lose ground to the competition in the stretch drive of sprint starts but the opposite is true at longer distances. That’s not a trait one seeks in a Kentucky Derby contender.

Whether we’re talking about popular victors such as California Chrome and Smarty Jones, or extreme longshots like Giacomo and Mine That Bird, handicappers can point to at least one two-turn race in the past performances of every Kentucky Derby winner beforehand where they didn’t lose ground in the stretch to the competition.

In his four sprint attempts, Nyquist made the lead by the upper stretch point-of-call. And like any top-class sprint/middle-distance horse, Nyquist draws off from rivals in those starts, increasing the lead from upper stretch to the finish line each time.

But the competition is gaining on him in both two-turn attempts, with dwindling leads a common characteristic to his FrontRunner and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile victories. We’ll see whether Nyquist can halt this negative trend next time.

Ground loss was never a question surrounding American Pharoah, who extended his margin through the stretch of every stakes race but the Haskell Invitational (G1), which predicated his lone 2015 defeat in the Travers (G1).

Suspect breeding for the Kentucky Derby is something to analyze on paper, but the issue is ultimately settled on track and Nyquist will have the opportunity to prove all doubters wrong this spring.

The San Vicente served as a good starting point for Exaggerator, who was last seen posting a game score over Sunny Ridge in the Delta Jackpot (G3) in late November, and trainer Keith Desormeaux will bring him back for the March 12 San Felipe (G2), providing a couple of two-turn preps for the classy colt.

I like the strategy. Exaggerator is by two-time Horse of the Year Curlin and hails from a Vindication mare – he’s bred to favor longer distances and figures to improve off the tightener.


Jockey Luis Quinonez took a hard hold at the start, pulling Suddenbreakingnews back to the tail of a 14-horse Southwest field, and the Donnie Von Hemel-trained gelding didn’t begin his rally until nearing the end of the far turn in the 1 1/16-mile race. He proceeded to inhale the competition with a stirring turn of foot, closing boldly down the middle of the track to win going away by 2 ¾ lengths.

Last seen finishing a nose second to Discreetness in the December 13 Springboard Mile at Remington Park, Suddenbreakingnews would’ve been a huge longshot if not coupled with stablemate Synchrony, who took the bulk of the betting action at 4-1 following a rallying third in the January 18 Smarty Jones at Oaklawn. Synchrony passed tiring rivals to be a disappointing sixth, one spot better than Smarty Jones winner Discreetness, who was caught at least eight wide on the first turn from post 14 and raced evenly throughout.

Bred in Kentucky, Suddenbreakingnews recorded a very encouraging performance in his seasonal bow. I like the fact he’s never been worse than second in six career starts and his BRIS Speed ratings (career-best 94 in Southwest) may keep improving.

And the Southwest front-runners didn’t simply collapse, which would’ve set the table for a one-punch closer; the top 3 after a half-mile stayed on to finish in the top 5 at the wire (third-through-fifth in a different order).

By Horse of the Year Mineshaft, Suddenbreakingnews is out of a mare is by Preakness (G1) and Belmont Stakes (G1) winner Afleet Alex, and the dam counts multiple Grade 1 winner Composure as a half-sister. Longer distances represent little obstacle if Suddenbreakingnews is good enough and the promising late runner will continue to be tested for class in upcoming starts.

Whitmore was stopped entering the far turn, forcing Mike Smith to check hard, but the lightly-raced gelding regained his momentum with an eye-catching move through the bend, advancing to challenge for the lead as the field turned for home.

I thought trouble played a factor, as Whitmore appeared to move too fast too soon after being steadied, but came away impressed with his effort. The chestnut gamely out-finished American Dubai for second after overhauled by Suddenbreakingnews and trainer Ron Moquett came away pleased, knowing Whitmore can continue to build upon the commendable showing.

A smart debut maiden winner at Churchill Downs in early November, Whitmore jumped straight to stakes with a fifth in the Delta Jackpot 15 days later. Moquett gave the son of Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) winner Pleasantly Perfect a confidence-builder to open the year, with Whitmore crushing entry-level allowance rivals at 6 furlongs on January 16, and I’ll look for more next time from the up-and-coming gelding.

Can’t fault the effort of American Dubai, who finished third in his third career outing, but tough to envision the E Dubai colt being a serious factor in future preps.

Cutacorner opened the year with a nice allowance tally at Oaklawn, defeating the favored American Dubai, but his ninth-place effort in the Southwest is a toss-out; we’ll learn more about the Jack Van Berg trainee next time.

Z Royal cost Cutacorner any chance with his antics on the first turn, interfering with rivals as jockey Gary Stevens fought the colt with all he had trying to restrain him. His mount’s crazed reaction to rating tactics begged the question; why was Z Royal wearing blinkers if Stevens wasn’t going to let him run from the starting gate?

It just didn’t make any sense: Z Royal rallied from midpack to break his maiden two starts previously without blinkers but performed like a confirmed speedball when adding headgear in the January 16 TwinSpires Lecomte (G3), tiring to be a well-beaten fifth after setting the pace. Attempts to rate him Monday with blinkers proved to be a disservice and I guess the blinkers will be coming off a race too late next time.

Sam Davis

Destin looks like a colt with an upward trajectory following Saturday’s 2 ¼-length Sam Davis victory. A full brother to Grade 1 winner and classic-placed Creative Cause, the gray son of Giant’s Causeway is now the most accomplished Kentucky Derby prospect in Todd Pletcher’s stable, with Zulu, Rally Cry and Mo Power still readying for their stakes debuts.

He drew attention when scoring at first asking, posting a one-length decision from just off the pace at Belmont Park in mid-October, but Destin took a detour in his next two outings, recording a runner-up finish at 1-5 odds in a December allowance at Gulfstream before a non-threatening fourth in the Lecomte.

Chalk those setbacks up to immaturity – Destin wasn’t focused upon the task at hand – but the light bulb appeared to finally turn on in the latter stages of the Lecomte. He was languishing near the back of the field before finally responding to the urgings of his rider, passing rivals with a nice late kick in the final furlong at Fair Grounds, and Destin took a significant step forward at Tampa Bay Downs.

He registered an excellent 100 BRIS Speed rating, the top number from a two-turn prep race this season, and I loved the way Destin finished up in the 1 1/16-mile race, accelerating away from runner-up Rafting in deep stretch. He could have a high ceiling, indeed.

Rafting was surprisingly not an early nominee to the Triple Crown but the $6,000 late payment looks assured. Third to Gun Runner in a Keeneland allowance two starts previously, the Graham Motion runner was exiting a facile tally in the one-mile Smooth Air at Gulfstream Park West in late November. He wound up 3 ½ lengths clear of second in a fine showing last Saturday and the Graham Motion-trained Tapit colt is out of a Kris S. mare; this is the female family of Dance Smartly and Rafting is bred to appreciate more ground.

Morning Fire weakened to third after setting the pace and probably prefers one-turn distances at this stage in his career.

Gettysburg proved to be a major disappointment as the 8-5 favorite, retreating to fifth after tracking the front-runners, and we’ve witnessed horses who simply didn’t like the Tampa track. But the Pioneerof the Nile colt was exiting a 1 1/8-mile maiden win where he had everything his own way on the front end. I wouldn’t give up on him completely, but the Pletcher-trained colt may be one to watch out for later this season.

El Camino Real Derby

Frank Conversation wasn’t a serious factor when trying dirt in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) in mid-December, checking in fifth of seven runners, but he’s taken to the synthetic Tapeta track at Golden Gate Fields, opening the year with wins in the California Derby and El Camino Real Derby. And it’s not surprising considering the Quality Road colt broke his maiden on Santa Anita’s turf and finished third in the grassy Cecil De Mille (G3) at Del Mar.

He has the same connections of Nyquist – owner Reddam Racing, O’Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez – and the April 2 Spiral (G3) on Turfway Park’s Polytrack is a logical spot to point toward. But O’Neill also mentioned the possibility of sending him to Dubai for the U.A.E. Derby (G2) on March 26 over a dirt track.

Frank Conversation appears to be a more promising turf prospect and the El Camino Real Derby probably won’t have any impact upon this year’s Kentucky Derby.


The Road to the Kentucky Derby series now enters the “Championship Season,” with Saturday’s Risen Star (G2) being the first of eight races offering points on a 50-20-10-5 scale. Point values will increase to 100-40-20-10 for the final round of seven preps beginning in late March.

Thirteen horses were entered for the 1 1/16-mile Risen Star, but the field is down to 12 with the defection of maiden Laoban. Lecomte winner Mo Tom and Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) winner Airoforce rate as top contenders.

I played Gunrunner at 25-1 odds in Pool 2 of last weekend’s Kentucky Derby Future Wager. The Candy Ride colt doesn’t have to win his seasonal debut, but I expect a good showing for Steve Asmussen.

Top 10

1) Mohaymen – Remained unbeaten with convincing Holy Bull (G2) win; Feb. 27 Fountain of Youth (G2) is next

2) Mor Spirit – Bob Lewis (G3) winner is a serious contender for four-time Kentucky Derby winner Bob Baffert

3) Brody’s Cause – Grade 1-winning late runner is scheduled to return in March 12 Tampa Bay Derby (G2)

4) Exaggerator – Trainer Keith Desormeaux wisely has two more preps planned following a fine second in San Vicente

5) Greenpointcrusader – Grade 1-winning juvenile exits a commendable Holy Bull runner-up; connections reportedly considering one more prep in late March/early April

6) Destin – Improving Sam Davis winner may continue to show more for Pletcher

7) Danzing Candy – Impressed recording maiden and allowance wins at Santa Anita; March 12 San Felipe (G2) represents a litmus test

8) Nyquist – Unbeaten colt returned with another sparkling performance at one turn; not sold on his chances at 1 ¼ miles in early May

9) Zulu – Similar to Danzing Candy, his reputation is built upon outstanding maiden and allowance tallies; we’ll learn more when he tries stakes rivals in Fountain of Youth

10) Cupid – Loved his finishing kick when stretching out to two turns in a Jan. 30 maiden; playing catch-up but Bodemeister broke his maiden in similar fashion for Baffert on Feb. 11


Here are my previous Kentucky Derby Reports:

February 10: Baffert remains in the spotlight with Mor Spirit

February 3: Mohaymen justifies star billing

January 20: Stakes-experience proves valuable

January 13: Sham winner doesn’t run fast but plenty of time remains

January 7: January brings a sense of anticipation