My counterpoint to Scully on Nyquist's Speed ratings

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

April 5th, 2016

Our own James Scully has weighed in with a typically informative blog about Nyquist’s BRIS Speed figures, raising a valid concern that the Kentucky Derby (G1) favorite routinely runs faster in sprints than routes.

As I’m still coming to grips with this year’s Derby contenders, and have yet to nail my colors to the mast, these are just the types of points that keep me in the limbo of “on the one hand…on the other hand.”

In fairness to Nyquist, however, I feel compelled to play devil’s advocate and offer a counterpoint about his Speed figures over a route. I won’t call it a rebuttal, since the question remains an open one that won’t be answered until Derby Day.

But extenuating circumstances were arguably at play in each of his two-turn races, which put his relatively lower numbers in context.

First, the FrontRunner (G1) was not only his first attempt at a route, but also represented the shortest amount of time he’s had between races – 19 days. So he was asked to stretch out off his Del Mar Futurity (G1) romp in a time frame a little tighter than trainer Doug O’Neill prefers. Nyquist passed his test the hard way, mixing it up throughout. He wandered down the stretch, tightening up Swipe at one point before edging clear again, and left an impression of possible vulnerability going into the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) in his first “away game” at Keeneland.

But with the benefit of a month between races, and that two-turn experience under his belt, Nyquist mocked everyone (myself included) who questioned him in the Breeders’ Cup. And he did so in defiance of a rough passage from post 12 that would have sunk the chances of a lesser horse. Mugged early and hung out unconscionably wide, he endured by far the widest trip of anyone in the field, according to Trakus. Nyquist had something else to overcome too: for a horse who’d always been on or pressing the pace early, he had to adjust his running style to win from off the pace, and he played his unfamiliar role like an old pro. After that trip, I wouldn't hold his Speed rating against him.

Fast forward to the Florida Derby (G1), and the extenuating circumstance this time had nothing to do with Nyquist himself. Unlike the FrontRunner, he was freshened with this target, and its $1 million bonus, in mind. Unlike the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he carved out a good trip for himself (blithely ignoring the would-be gadflies who tried to pester him early). Even though he ducked out before lurching back in on his left lead, Nyquist was charging ahead energetically and actually widened his margin at the wire.

The hesitation about his Florida Derby Speed rating derives from the rain-affected track that was changing over the course of the card. How exactly do you arrive at the proper variant when Gulfstream was absorbing rain at different points throughout the day, and track conditions were evolving? It’s worth remembering that this is something of an art form.

For example, the older horse Valid only got a 99 for winning Saturday’s Skip Away (G3) over the same track and trip as the Florida Derby. Because he’s recorded faster numbers previously, you wouldn’t take that number as representative of his best. You’ve got the luxury of a lengthier resume to go on when judging Valid, and the evidence isn’t anywhere nearly as complete for Nyquist.

Another case in point from Florida Derby Day is Grande Shores, who posted a mere 92 for winning the seven-furlong Sir Shackleton. He’s been running considerably faster in his recent defeats. Indeed, that’s the lowest Speed rating he’s turned in since the 90 he earned for a cheap optional claimer last October.

Nyquist still faces questions in the Kentucky Derby, especially as the presumptive short-priced favorite. I’d prefer to see more stamina in his immediate female line to help out his sire Uncle Mo, and as I’ve written elsewhere, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile form has received quite a few knocks lately. Perhaps he will find the Derby trip too testing as he takes on the smarter up-and-comers, and it’s logical to cast about for the alternatives.

But that decision should be made after evaluating Nyquist as an individual, and putting his entire body of work up against the others. While Speed figures can be a helpful tool of analysis, I wouldn’t want to get overly reductionist about numbers without context. 

Nyquist photo courtesy of Coglianese Photography.