by Dick Powell
The 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby (G1) is in the books, and for me it was a bit anti-climactic.
We talk all year about how the big field of 20 runners provides an opportunity for a life-changing score and we wound up with the first-betting choice beating the second-betting choice who beat the third-betting choice who beat the fourth-betting choice.
The betting public should be congratulated as they got it right. Their reward was a $30.60 exacta, a $173.40 trifecta and a $1,084.20 superfecta, mutuel payoffs that you see every day of the week with far fewer starters and betting combinations.
I was confident in my top selection, MOR SPIRIT (Eskendereya). But then about an hour before the race a flash thunderstorm hit Churchill Downs and, even though it lasted less than 10 minutes, it dumped a lot of rain on the main track. In the Santa Anita Derby (G1), Mor Spirit cruised around the sloppy track that day without ever running hard and now I was worried about what kind of surface he would be racing over.
NYQUIST (Uncle Mo) had no such concerns with a big win in the Florida Derby (G1) on a very wet track and the winner of the Santa Anita Derby, EXAGGERATOR (Curlin), clearly loved wet tracks.
Many felt that there might be a modest pace this year because of the lack of one-dimensional front-runners but all that changed at the start. The clear speed of the race was DANZING CANDY (Twirling Candy), but he broke slow from his post 20 and now Mike Smith had to really put the pedal down.
Instead of using his natural speed to take command on his own terms and pace, here was Smith flying down the Churchill Downs’ homestretch the first time to make the lead going into the first turn. Danzing Candy covered it in :22.58, and when you consider the ground he gave up at the start the momentum he had going into the clubhouse turn was enormous and there was no way Smith could then get him to rate.
Mario Gutierrez broke Nyquist on top and then waited for Smith to go by him. Once Danzing Candy passed him, Gutierrez eased Nyquist off the inside to take up a stalking position to his outside. With the fast pace, the field was strung out more than expected and Louisiana Derby (G2) winner GUN RUNNER (Candy Ride) was getting a perfect trip in third while saving ground.
Mor Spirit did not look like he was grabbing the track, and instead of being forwardly placed like expected he was eighth on the outside going by the finish line the first time. From there, he raced one-paced around the track and finished 10th.
Down the backstretch they went through a first half in :45.72. Gutierrez kept Nyquist off the rail to get him to relax and that gave Florent Geroux room to get Gun Runner off the rail and go up outside of Danzing Candy.
They hit the far turn in 1:10.40 and, with Gutierrez breathing down their necks, Geroux pulled the trigger nearing the top of the stretch. Danzing Candy was already dropping back and the two leaders had command after a mile was run in 1:35.61.
Gun Runner had the lead when they turned for home but Nyquist immediately pounced on him and seized control. In a perfect world, maybe Gutierrez waits a bit more to make his final move but there he was on the lead with three-sixteenths of a mile to run. The undefeated juvenile champion looked like he got either tired, or bored, from having the lead so long and, from out of the pack, Kent Desormeaux was making a threatening move aboard Exaggerator.
Gutierrez looked back, saw him coming and got busy again on Nyquist. The rate that Exaggerator was making up ground began to slow and Nyquist was safely home by 1 1/4 lengths in the very fast time of 2:01.31 for the 1 1/4 miles.
Exaggerator was a game second and Gun Runner held on for third in a three-way show photo with MOHAYMEN (Tapit) and SUDDENBREAKINGNEWS (Mineshaft).
The only way the exotic prices were going to explode was if Suddenbreakingnews could have gotten into the money. He had trouble away from the gate when CREATOR (Tapit) kept leaning in on him, trailed second last for most of the run down the backside, went outside on the far turn then went back to the inside turning for home and before running out of gas at the eight-pole.
Amazingly, Suddenbreakingnews re-broke in when he switched back to the correct lead and came on again with a final surge. After a half-mile was run, he was 27 3/4 lengths behind, 18 3/4 lengths adrift after six furlongs, 16 lengths behind after a mile and finished 4 3/4 lengths back of the winner at the finish. At 24- 1, he was the only real longshot that gave any glimmer of hope to blow up the prices.
At no point from the time the horses walked over from the barn area did Nyquist look like he was going to lose. He was composed and ready, exactly what I saw at the Florida Derby last month, and a consummate professional. He breaks well, gives his riders many tactical options and for the first time in a long time, he did not run erratically in the stretch.
Nyquist was a well-deserving winner of Kentucky Derby 142 and now gets to go on to try to make history.
Nyquist photo courtesy of Churchill Downs/Coady Photography