“I think it is the best group of two-year-olds I’ve ever had.”
So declared trainer Doug O’Neill in early August. Just about a month to the day later, that view was vindicated on Labor Day when O’Neill pupils Ralis and Nyquist turned an historic cross-country double spanning the Hopeful (G1) at Saratoga and the $300,250 Del Mar Futurity (G1). Ralis had class questions to answer in the Hopeful, especially since he was subbing for stablemate Mrazek, who was sidelined by body soreness.
After Ralis drubbed the Spa’s best at odds of 6-1, O’Neill could legitimately cite the old adage, “I’ve got a better one back in the barn.”
That better one, of course, was Nyquist. The sensational winner of the Best Pal (G2) fresh off his near track-record debut win, Nyquist was the 1-2 favorite to make it three in a row in the Del Mar Futurity. The son of Uncle Mo duly obliged by a geared-down 3 3/4 lengths.
Whenever you’ve got a talented two-year-old, thoughts almost involuntarily turn far off to the first Saturday in May. That narrative could take on special prominence now, since last year’s Del Mar Futurity winner was none other than American Pharoah.
Before getting too carried away, let’s remember that Uncle Mo was a devastatingly brilliant juvenile who unfortunately had his problems at three. As an Uncle Mo fan, I’m rooting for him to become a successful sire and carry on the torch of his own sire, Indian Charlie. And he’s off to a fantastic start with a potential two-year-old champion in Nyquist. Yet his own background is a cautionary tale about the pitfalls along the Derby trail.
Nyquist’s immediate family reinforces the speedy profile. He’s the first registered foal from the Forestry mare Seeking Gabrielle, a winner at six furlongs. The dam is a half-sister to graded-placed juveniles Seeking the Money and Seeking It All, and more notably Grade 3-winning sprinter Seeking the Sky, herself the dam of millionaire sprinter/miler Sahara Sky. Nyquist’s second dam is herself Adirondack (G2) heroine Seeking Regina.
On the plus side, Nyquist travels like a dream with his high cruising speed and fluent stride. This ability was on display in the Del Mar Futurity, as he comfortably tracked in second through fast fractions of :22.44 and :44.54. Fellow stalkers Rockin Bayou and Blameitonthelaw, in contrast, had to work harder to keep their positions.
When Nyquist smoothly struck the front on the far turn, Rockin Bayou was driven along to go with him. Only then did winning rider Mario Gutierrez ask the favorite for effort, and he pulled clear. Rockin Bayou was exhausted by midstretch and wound up fourth — the price he paid for trying to move with Nyquist. Blameitonthelaw trudged past him in third, but also looked rubber-legged.
Late-running Swipe, on the other hand, bided his time from further off the pace and therefore had more left in the stretch. The Keith Desormeaux trainee rallied for a clear second, beaten 3 3/4 lengths. Swipe closed the gap better here than he did when second in the Best Pal, where Nyquist’s margin was 5 1/4 lengths. If you’re tempted to say that the extra half-furlong helped Swipe, that would overlook the fact that the half-mile split in the Best Pal was two seconds slower (:46.65). Nyquist had plenty in hand after that.
Nyquist expended more energy early in the Del Mar Futurity, and still dominated. He did slow down appreciably, however. After reaching six furlongs in 1:09.80, he covered the final furlong in :13.48, resulting in a final time of 1:23.28. Was that just because Gutierrez wrapped up on him, or did Gutierrez wrap up on him because he was tiring, and it was pointless to inflate the margin?
Given his tactical speed, tractability, and efficient motion, Nyquist should have no problem stretching out to two turns this campaign. But it could be a different story as the distances increase on the Triple Crown trail, and late-developing rivals start to come on the scene. That’s not meant as a criticism of a very talented colt, but just a reminder of where we are on the calendar.
For now, let’s just enjoy a star two-year-old, and not worry about 2016 prospects until we’re much further down that road.
Quotes from Del Mar publicity:
Jockey Mario Gutierrez, Nyquist: “Any other track in the country – if I run a :44 half like that – I’m well in front. Be here they were all coming at me. I used him early, but then I didn’t have to use him at all. He just coasted home. He’s a nice colt, really nice. Can I compare him to I’ll Have Another (on whom he won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2012)? No, not really different horses. Remember, I rode ‘Another’ as a three-year-old. This one is only a two-year-old.”
Trainer Doug O’Neill, Nyquist: “I thought we had the perfect trip and Mario did a great job. This is a super horse and, like any great athlete, it’s a matter of staying healthy and if he stays that way he’ll do some big things.”
Jockey Kent Desormeaux, Swipe: “The winner was just too good. My horse is still learning. He’s getting there. But compliments to the winners on an impressive performance.”
Benoit Photo via Del Mar Twitter.