I spent the better part of the hour in the lead-up to the Kentucky Derby (G1) talking racing history (the 1960s in particular) with my turf writing colleague Gary West. Enjoying every moment of it, the time absolutely flew by as we chatted about the greats of the past. Minutes later, he and I were witnesses to the horse of the present and future.
Bettors were on their game Friday and Saturday backing Nyquist to 2-1 favoritism in the Derby. The surprise to skeptics like myself was not that Nyquist was the favorite, but that he was backed so heavily from his 3-1 morning line price. While a deserving favorite given his undefeated record and strong Florida Derby (G1) score, there were lingering concerns, not the least his (supposed) speed-oriented pedigree and his two-turn speed ratings not exactly being head and shoulders above his 19 rivals.
None of it mattered. From my position near the eighth pole, I can safely say this Kentucky Derby was over before Nyquist passed me. The performance was made even more remarkable considering Nyquist’s close-up position behind fractions of :22.58, :45.72, and 1:10.40. Not only did that pace take nothing out of him, he opened up willingly and asserted his superiority with aplomb over a field some of us, fatuously in retrospect, felt was closer in talent than was actually the case.
Having watched his life-and-death struggle to beat Swipe in the FrontRunner (G1) and then witnessed his game but slow win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), I could not have been more dubious regarding his chances of being in the Kentucky Derby (G1) winner’s circle six months ago. It’s safe to say I’ve been finally won over by Nyquist. “What took you so long?” would be an adequate, and perhaps the politest, retort to that statement.
For the next couple of weeks leading up to the Preakness (G1), there will be endless comparisons between Nyquist and last year’s Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, also a juvenile champion who made good under the Twin Spires. It’s too early for that, in my opinion, but the Nyquist camp does have a major feather in their cap. Nyquist goes to Baltimore with a flawless record, and American Pharoah did not.
The Preakness “new shooters” we currently know of are an interesting bunch, in particular the Bob Baffert-trained Collected and Cupid, but in the immediate aftermath of the Derby it appears the second jewel of the Triple Crown will be another two-horse race between Nyquist and Exaggerator, who made a gallant rally from far back and who was really the only deep closer to make any impact in the race.
Exaggerator has met Nyquist four times and lost all four. That’s a tough shadow to be in, and Exaggerator’s style of running is not exactly conducive for success at Pimlico, especially against a rival like Nyquist, who can rate close and then beat you with a big move on the turn before shutting the door.
Am I off base in thinking, in terms of style, that Nyquist and Exaggerator bear a little resemblance to Real Quiet and Victory Gallop in their Triple Crown duel of 1998? If so, Exaggerator’s time to turn the tables will eventually come. But not soon, and probably not in Charm City.