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Unbeaten champion Nyquist rolls in San Vicente, eyes next step to Kentucky Derby

By Kellie Reilly

Last year’s undefeated champion 2-year-old colt Nyquist had been training sharply for his comeback in Monday’s $200,000 San Vicente (G2), and his morning works didn’t lie. Despite the potential complications of a rail draw, the pestering of a pure sprinter in Sheikh of Sheikhs early, and the perfect stalking trip handed to his chief opponent Exaggerator, the 2-5 favorite sailed through handily in a brisk 1:20.71.

That’s technically the third-fastest San Vicente in the overall history of the seven-furlong test. But since the stakes record of 1:20.01 was set by Georgie Boy (2008) during Santa Anita’s synthetic era, Nyquist owns the second-fastest time on dirt. Only The Factor (1:20.34), racing over a wet-fast track in 2011, went quicker on the dirt.

Breaking alertly beneath regular rider Mario Gutierrez, Nyquist matched strides with Sheikh of Sheikhs through an opening quarter in :22.50 before putting his head in front. The favorite was going more easily than his would-be nemesis at the half in :44.49.

But just as Nyquist put him away rounding the far turn, he had to deal with a fresh challenge from Exaggerator. Although Exaggerator was drawing near his flank, Nyquist telegraphed that he had his measure. With Gutierrez merely pushing him out, and the barest of light taps, Nyquist pulled away again by 1 1/2 lengths. To use an old chart caller’s phrase, he had “speed to spare.”

Now 6-for-6, Nyquist proved once again that he simply finds a way to win. Whether mixing it up early before romping in the Del Mar Futurity (G1) and Best Pal (G2), showing true grit in his two-turn debut in the FrontRunner (G1), or hung out wide rallying from uncharacteristically off the pace in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), Nyquist has been bomb-proof.

The burning question, of course, is whether the Reddam Racing colorbearer can stay that way through the Kentucky Derby (G1). While a handful turned the San Vicente/Kentucky Derby double upwards of a half-century ago, that pattern has virtually vanished. Since Majestic Prince (1969), only one San Vicente winner went on to glory in the Run for the Roses – Hall of Famer Silver Charm (1997), who won the San Vicente from off the pace, boasted a stamina-oriented pedigree, and had the benefit of two additional preps en route to Churchill Downs.

Nyquist offers a contrast to Silver Charm on all three counts. His pedigree doesn’t offer persuasive encouragement for the 1 1/4-mile distance – being by Uncle Mo and out of a Forestry mare from a speed-oriented family. Granted, it’s early days yet for Mo’s first crop, but his profile screams an influence for high-class brilliance and precocity. That has summed up Nyquist.

Moreover, the game plan all along has been for Nyquist to have only one two-turn prep, likely the April 2 Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park. Trainer Doug O’Neill has reportedly been building up Nyquist’s stamina through his regimen of gallops, but can that have the same effect as stiffer preps? On the other hand, maybe the old rules don’t apply anymore. Maybe in this age of sparingly raced types, someone will manage such a light preparation. Until it happens, though, I’m remaining more cautious than optimistic.

On paper, Exaggerator ought to progress with distance and maturity as a son of Curlin. Yet his dam is the stakes-placed sprinter Dawn Raid, who set a new track record as a juvenile at Woodbine. The influence of Curlin has already helped Exaggerator stay farther than his dam, but if he takes after her precocity, he might not have a lot of scope for further development. He’s quite good as he is right now, of course, but I’m not sure he’s going to take leaps forward.

Third-placer Denman’s Call checked in a further 2 1/2 lengths adrift. Also trained by O’Neill, the Northern Afleet gelding was stepping up off a debut maiden win here January 9. This three-quarter brother to multiple Grade 1-winning millionaire Evening Jewel can go on to better things. Sheikh of Sheikhs faded to a distant fourth, and El Charro was run off his feet at every stage.

Nyquist, a future Darley stallion, has now bankrolled $1,733,600.

Quotes from Santa Anita

Jockey Mario Gutierrez on Nyquist: “He hasn’t run since November (October 31) so we know he was going to be rank but I also believe in his talent. I wanted to fight with him as little as possible today, let him do his thing and you saw the results.

“I wasn’t worried about Exaggerator today. I can’t be worried about that, about other horses. I know my horse is talented enough to make it to the bigger races so if I’m worried about other horses now, this early, than that makes me sound like I don’t believe in my horse and I do.”

Hall of Fame rider Kent Desormeaux on runner-up Exaggerator: “You’d have to break the track record to win the race, so that’s telling for both horses. They’re both very talented. I had a dream trip. The winner was too good.”

Trainer Doug O’Neill on Nyquist: “Everything went great, and for the race to go the way it did, I’m pumped and so proud of the whole team. Mario (Gutierrez) was great under pressure, which is what we need right now.

“Exaggerator is a nice horse, and for him (Nyquist) to hold him off the way he did showed you how talented he is. There were some anxious moments when I saw the fractions, and you’re better off on the outside tracking than on the inside being tracked. The post (one) wasn’t an advantage at all and I think we got pushed by the bottom horse (Sheikh of Sheikhs) a little bit early. But Mario is smart. He knew what he had. I really was impressed with the gallop out. He galloped out great.

“I haven’t talked to Paul (Reddam). The original plan was the Florida Derby (April 2) and there’s a bonus involved, of course, so we’ll huddle up and play it by ear and do whatever is in the best interest of Nyquist for sure.”

Dennis O’Neill on Nyquist: “It was scary, because I saw that horse pressing him, and 44 and change was a little spooky, and then eight and change, and you keep waiting for them to slow down off a layoff like that. To see him kick on and gallop out like that was really, really exciting. I don’t know how good this horse is now. I knew he was a good horse, but I thought today’s performance was amazing. We’re really excited moving forward. It’s a perfect prep. We have seven weeks (to the Florida Derby). We couldn’t ask for anything better.

“The gallop out was scary, because it looked like Exaggerator had him. He made him run. He kept trying to get a breather, and he couldn’t get a breather the whole way. For a horse to do it is pretty exciting.”

Nyquist’s owner Paul Reddam: “That was what we anticipated. We knew Exaggerator was ready, and we knew we’d probably have to go.”

 “They can give him respect or not, but that’s not going to affect his performance on the racetrack. We try not to take any of that personally and if they want to say, ‘That was only seven-eighths – how’s he going to be at a mile and an eighth or a mile and a quarter?,’ We’ll let him tell us.”

 “When we talked about it at the beginning of the year, we said we’d go to the San Vicente and the Florida Derby because we liked the timing. I think Doug will change his mind a couple times between now and then, because there’s the temptation to stay home. We love Santa Anita. But we’ll see. We just want to take it in stride. It was a good first step.

“The track was fast, and he ran like the track was fast. He’s just got that mindset that you’re not going to beat him.”

Exaggerator’s trainer Keith Desormeaux: “Goodness gracious. Anybody not a believer in Nyquist now — that was an awesome race, to set those kinds of fractions and still finish in close to track record time for a three-year-old in February. Wow! Hat’s off to Nyquist.”

Photo courtesy of Benoit.