Nyquist in historical perspective

May 8th, 2016

As the dust continues to settle from Nyquist’s brilliant victory in the Kentucky Derby (G1), what’s most striking to me is its number of historical markers.

Starting from more recent racing history, he’s only the second Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) winner to wear the roses, joining Street Sense. One day Nyquist will also join Street Sense in the Darley stallion barn, so this is quite a coup for Sheikh Mohammed’s operation.

Widening the historical lens, Nyquist became the 21st champion 2-year-old to go on to Derby glory. If you look only at the champions since 1936 (when a voting system was established to determine champions), a dozen preceded Nyquist. Most of them are among the sport’s all-time greats.

Seven of those are Triple Crown winners (Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and American Pharoah). Three more were dual classic winners (Needles, Riva Ridge, and Spectacular Bid, who was unlucky not to sweep the Triple Crown). The remaining duo came close to taking two -- Foolish Pleasure, second in the Preakness (G1) and a near-misser in the Belmont (G1), and the aforementioned Street Sense, beaten a head in the Preakness.

Nyquist also ranks as the eighth horse to preserve his perfect record through the Derby. This exclusive club comprises the filly Regret, Morvich, Majestic Prince, Seattle Slew, Smarty Jones, Barbaro, and Big Brown. Although “Slew” is the only Triple Crown winner among these, Majestic Prince and Smarty Jones came close. Big Brown may well have swept if not for his notorious foot problems that caught up to him in the Belmont, and ill-fated Barbaro is one of the most gut-wrenching “what if’s” in racing.  

Nyquist’s success also conjured up fresh regrets about what might have been for his sire Uncle Mo, who showed exceptional talent before his liver issue forced him to scratch from the Derby. It resurfaced to compromise him in the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1), prompting his retirement. As an Uncle Mo fan, I was hopeful that his broodmare sire Arch would give him enough stamina to handle the classic distance.

There wasn’t an equal degree of help from Nyquist’s maternal half, at least up close. His pedigree left some room for debate about his distance capacity, and in my profile, I came down firmly…on the fence. The deeper influences were there, if he inherited them. It wasn’t reassuring, but it wasn’t disqualifying either.

Going into Derby 142, my one slight scruple about Nyquist was whether he would relax kindly in the early going. He’d always been a tractable type, but of late I thought he looked a little more aggressive in the Florida Derby (G1) and early on in his mile work in company with Ralis. If Nyquist was too much into the bit in the Derby, he’d make his task harder. And if you’re given benefit of the doubt on pedigree, you don’t have much margin for error at what may be the upper end of your range.

Maybe Nyquist was more switched off in those spots than I gave him credit for. I might well have been over-interpreting the visual evidence (an occupational hazard as well as a personal foible).

On the other hand, perhaps Danzing Candy’s scorching pace actually helped Nyquist settle more easily into his early rhythm in the Derby. That’s entirely a view from the benefit of hindsight. If you’d told me that Nyquist would be chasing those fractions, I would have thought he can’t win from there.

Of course, it’s been noted that the main track was playing kindly to forwardly placed runners all day. And the Churchill dirt was also very fast. Hence Nyquist’s final time of 2:01.31, although the Derby’s fastest since Funny Cide’s 2:01.19 in 2003, was assigned only a 98 BRIS Speed rating initially. [Update: a rating subsequently revised to 104.]

While that’s a useful corrective, the point remains that Nyquist coped far better than the other pace factors. Danzing Candy, admittedly compromised by an entrapped epiglottis, tired to 15th. My rooting interest, Gun Runner, moved arguably prematurely, but he was never going to outfinish Nyquist anyway. He wilted late and barely salvaged third. The others who raced within hailing distance early ended up retreating.

Nyquist didn’t just handle the pace. He appeared to thrive on it.

That’s a tremendous result for sire Uncle Mo. As smashing as he was with his first-crop juveniles, it figured that an unbeaten 2-year-old champion would sire horses in a similar mold. For any horse to sire a Derby winner in his first crop, let alone a horse of Uncle Mo’s speedy and precocious profile, is an achievement.

Uncle Mo, now just eight years old, has equaled the record for the youngest sire with a Derby winner. The others of this tender age to have Derby winners are Gallant Fox (the only Triple Crown winner to sire one, thanks to Omaha), Pensive (sire of Ponder), Royal Coinage (sire of Venetian Way), Raise a Native (sire of Majestic Prince), and Maria’s Mon (sire of Monarchos and later Super Saver).

Nyquist and Uncle Mo have already joined some impressive company, and they’re not done yet.

Photo courtesy of Jessie Holmes/EquiSport Photos.