LOUISVILLE — Right until the end, they picked at Nyquist. Too slow. Not bred to run the 11/4-mile distance.
But those who believed in him — none more than trainer Doug O’Neill and owner Paul Reddam — felt all the doubters missed the point. Nyquist deserved to be the Kentucky Derby favorite because he had answered every question asked of him as a racehorse.
The undefeated colt answered the biggest one Saturday, winning the 142nd running of the Derby, the most coveted prize in American racing. He was the fourth straight favorite to win the race, generally thought of as difficult to pick because of the 20-horse field and the thin résumés of many contenders.
O’Neill joked that he and Reddam had dismissed as idiots all the writers who questioned Nyquist.
“But that’s the beauty of sports,” he said, reverting to his usual California calm. “You don’t want everybody picking the same team, because then it’s no fun.”
Nyquist continues to amaze his trainer with a seemingly endless reserve of talent and energy.
“You put him in company, and he’s a Ferrari,” O’Neill said.
Keith Desormeaux, trainer of runner-up Exaggerator, who has now lost to Nyquist four times, said he can’t understand why critics keep underestimating the 2-1 Derby favorite.
“The key word is ‘obvious,’ ” Desormeaux said of Nyquist’s greatness. “I learned that in the San Vicente in California. Mohaymen learned that in Florida. And he keeps teaching us every day, so mucho respect for Nyquist. . . . He’s a great horse, and it’s no shame to run second to him.”
Dale Romans, trainer of seventh-place finisher Brody’s Cause, was among those who said mea culpas after doubting Nyquist.
“He’s one of those horses that has that intangible where he doesn’t get the respect, but he always wins,” Romans said. “It did surprise me a little bit, but how can you be that surprised when an undefeated 2-year-old champion wins the Kentucky Derby? It happened with Seattle Slew.”
Romans said he was particularly impressed that Nyquist didn’t become overly eager when Danzing Candy and Gun Runner ran in front of him during the blistering early portion of the race. He was mystified by O’Neill’s decision to train at Keeneland instead of Churchill Downs during the run-up to the race but praised the winning trainer for sticking to his guns.
“He wasn’t stuck in what he had done before,” Romans said. “He knows his horse, and it showed in what he did today. He did a great job training his horse.”
The race set up perfectly for Nyquist, with jockey Mario Gutierrez holding him in second and third place behind the fast early pace set by Danzing Candy. After the early leader fell back, Gutierrez made his move on Gun Runner, who ended up third, at the top of the stretch. Nyquist moved to the lead easily and held off the charging Exaggerator by 11/4 lengths.
“We just got a beautiful trip from the start to the end,” Gutierrez said. “I get my confidence from Nyquist. I trust him, and I believe he trusts me.”
Nyquist earned $1.63 million for the win before an announced crowd of 167,227, second largest in Derby history. He paid $6.60 on a $2 bet to win, $4.80 on a bet to place and $3.60 on a bet to show. Exaggerator paid $5.40 and $4.20. Gun Runner paid $6.
Derby day began early for Nyquist’s team, with a backstretch visit from the NHL’s Stanley Cup. Reddam, an ardent hockey fan, named his prize horse after Detroit Red Wings forward Gustav Nyquist. It was an auspicious beginning for a group that has lived through triumph and heartache.
The trio of O’Neill, Reddam and Gutierrez previously won the Derby with I’ll Have Another in 2012. He went on to win the Preakness, but O’Neill scratched him with an injured tendon the morning before the Belmont Stakes, where he was an early 4-5 favorite to take the Triple Crown.
The fallout from that crushing disappointment could have split the partnership, but instead it affirmed the loyalty between O’Neill and Reddam, who stood by his trainer through a spate of medication violations.
The Canadian businessman, who specializes in high-interest loans, bought Nyquist in early 2015 at the urging of O’Neill’s brother, Dennis. Nyquist quickly rewarded the $400,000 investment, winning five races as a 2-year-old, including the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. As a 3-year-old, he whipped his top rivals — Exaggerator in the San Vicente Stakes and Mohaymen in the Florida Derby.
Now he will try to follow American Pharoah and become the second Triple Crown winner in a row after a 37-year drought. Seattle Slew and Affirmed did it back to back in 1977 and 1978.
Nyquist’s toughness and versatility certainly will give his supporters plenty to dream on, even as his doubters question his pedigree to handle the 11/2-mile Belmont Stakes. He’s the first undefeated Derby champion since Big Brown in 2008.
“He’s an amazing horse,” said Victor Espinoza, who rode American Pharoah last year and Derby winner California Chrome in 2014. “I wish him the best of luck. I hope they win. I don’t know if he’s good enough, like American Pharoah. American Pharoah was different. I’ve never seen any other horse like him. But Nyquist, you can’t take it away. He’s an awesome horse.”
O’Neill said he’s never had a better one, including I’ll Have Another. “He’s never tired,” he said. “We never seem to get to the bottom of him. That’s promising for the future.”
Desormeaux, whose brother, Kent, had Exaggerator coming on strong down the stretch, said he thought Nyquist might be caught at the end.
“I’m not good enough to think it was over until past the wire,” he said. “That was a great horse race.”
He was happy enough with his horse’s performance that he said a Preakness rematch is likely.
“Of course,” Desormeaux said when asked about the possibility. “At this point, yeah. One of the great attributes of my horse is that he recovers quickly. So running back in two weeks shouldn’t be an issue for him.”
Asked about Desormeaux’s eagerness for a fifth battle between Nyquist and Exaggerator, Reddam grinned and said, “I would’ve thought he was sick of us by now.”
It should make for an intriguing plot as the eyes of the racing world turn to Baltimore for the second leg of the Triple Crown on May 21.