Derby Decision

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Doug O’Neill had five weeks between the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby and a weighty decision to make with Paul Reddam’s undefeated champion Nyquist.

The choices seemed fairly simple and predictable, either ship the colt back to his Southern California base at Santa Anita Park or send him to Louisville early to train at Churchill Downs in preparation for the biggest test of his young life in America’s most prestigious race.

O’Neill could zig, or zag. He did neither.

O’Neill instead sent Nyquist to Keeneland Race Course with a small string that he planned to run at the bucolic Lexington track’s spring meeting or down the road during Derby Week at Churchill. He formulated his decision from a number of factors – lessons learned in his training career that dates back to the late 1980s, past success in the Derby with 2012 winner I’ll Have Another and scores of other triumphs with horses like Hall of Famer Lava Man, Breeders’ Cup winners Goldencents, Stevie Wonderboy, Maryfield, and Thor’s Echo.

“I think, as I’ve gotten longer in the tooth, I’ve realized that a really good horse you can train him a hundred different ways,” O’Neill told the press after Nyquist stormed to victory in Saturday’s 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby in front of a packed crowd of 167,227 at Churchill. “As long as you surround him with people that serve them right and take good care of them, it’s hard to really screw them up.”

O’Neill did those two things with Nyquist at Keeneland, sending the son of Uncle Mo to Lexington with the people who know him best and throwing a slightly unconventional training regimen, at least by modern standards, at him in the process.

Nyquist’s regular groom, Elias Anaya, kept a watchful eye day and night. Exercise rider Jonny Garcia was there, too, guiding the bay colt on his daily training and for two of his three breezes at Keeneland between the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby.

Assistant Jack Sisterson ponied the colt, and the rest of the O’Neill string, to and from the track every day.

Other members of Team O’Neill came and went and O’Neill himself racked up some more frequent-flier miles on trips back and forth from California to Kentucky a few days at a time for every breeze.

Aside from a slightly elevated temperature shortly after arriving from Florida – an issue that got headlines but never really was a big concern for his connections – Nyquist never missed a beat during his stay at Keeneland. He trained on the main track and the synthetic training track, got to relax in the spacious barn area and grazed on the lush and ample green grass.

“It’s the best of both worlds here,” O’Neill said about halfway through the stay. “If every racetrack had enough real estate to add a synthetic track as a training track, it’s really gold. … It’s a place where horses are happy.”

O’Neill was happy with Nyquist’s serious pieces of training, which started with a solo 5-furlong breeze in 1:02.60 April 15 and progressed to another work in company with Grade 1 winner Ralis at the same distance in 1:01.80.

In line with his opinion that there are a “hundred different ways” to train a good horse, O’Neill strayed from Nyquist’s routine of training at 7 a.m. and breezed him before the races at 12:15 p.m. Friday, April 29, again in company but this time going 1 mile.

A 1-mile workout would never seem out of the ordinary for the legendary trainers of old, the late Allen Jerkens came immediately to mind as Nyquist and Ralis broke off for the breeze in front of the filling up grandstand, but it was far from the norm of the modern-day trainers who dish out predictable 4- and 5-furlong breezes week after week after week. To put the work in a bit more perspective, only four of the 19 opponents Nyquist faced in the Derby showed published workouts longer than 5 furlongs, and only longshot Majesto breezed a mile in advance of the Derby.

Mario Gutierrez, who rode I’ll Have Another for owner Paul Reddam and O’Neill and aboard Nyquist in his first seven starts, flew in from California for the work. Garcia was on Ralis, the winner of the Hopeful Stakes last summer at Saratoga who proved to be no match for his champion stablemate.

In a soft voice O’Neill said “poor Ralis,” while Nyquist drew even and pulled authoritatively away from his stablemate in the same way he dispatched Gun Runner turning for home in the Derby.

Derby workouts being Derby workouts, seemingly everyone let their opinion be heard or read or posted on social media. It was good. It was bad. He did it easy. He had to work. O’Neill only cared about one man’s opinion – Gutierrez.

“I wanted to hear that Mario was happy and we got that,” O’Neill said “His standard mile back home is like 1:45, 1:46 and he went 1:41 today. Sometimes when he’s by himself he would wait and not do it, but today Mario said he pulled away from Ralis and was doing it all on his own. A little bit of a new dimension for him, pulling away from horses, so that was cool.”

The opinions about Nyquist continued in Louisville during Derby Week, when everyone with a media credential becomes an expert.

The general consensus was this year’s Derby field was the “most wide open” in years and that Nyquist, while the 3-1 morning-line favorite, was vulnerable. The case against Nyquist by some centered on him being “slow,” at least according to speed figures, and certainly not based on the fact that he broke his maiden going 5 furlongs in :56.43 and won the 7-furlong San Vicente in 1:20.71.

None of that mattered to Reddam, O’Neill, Gutierrez and the rest of Team Nyquist. It didn’t matter much to the fans on hand at Churchill or wagering around the world, who hammered Nyquist down to 2-1 by post time of the main event. Exaggerator, winner of the Santa Anita Derby and second to Nyquist in that San Vicente, was the only other member of the field at single-digit odds at 5-1.

The horseplayers got it right as the first four favorites, in order, completed the superfecta with Nyquist, Exaggerator, Gun Runner and Mohaymen filling out the spots for a tidy $542.10 return on a $1 bet of that wager. So much for the race being “wide open.”

O’Neill understood the doubters, acknowledging after the race that “people are just looking for value,” while many of his contemporaries with starters in the race were puzzled by the so-called lack of respect for Nyquist. Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher, Kiaran McLaughlin, Steve Asmussen, Keith Desormeaux and many others publicly acknowledged Nyquist was the one to beat and said he was a deserving favorite.

Nyquist ran like a deserving favorite, tracking the early pace of Danzing Candy into the first turn with Gun Runner in close pursuit to his inside through quick opening fractions of :22.58 and :45.72.

Gun Runner and Florent Geroux made their move to the lead around the far turn as Danzing Candy and some of the other close pursuers – Outwork, Whitmore, Tom’s Ready, Shagaf and Oscar Nominated chief among them – started to weaken when the real questions were asked. Gun Runner was in front turning for home but not for long as Gutierrez and Nyquist pounced quickly and opened up in an instant.

Geroux apologized to Asmussen, trainer of Gun Runner for Three Chimneys Farm, Winchell Thoroughbreds and Besilu Stables, amidst a wild crush of humanity near the jockey scale after unsaddling.

“The pace got him,” Geroux said, Three Chimneys’ Chief Operating Officer Chris Baker listening closely next to Asmussen.

“No, no, no. Nyquist got him,” Asmussen quickly corrected his jockey before a reassuring pat on the back.

Exaggerator, one of several deep closers among the top contenders, benefited from the quick pace and made up significant ground in the latter stages of the race. Jockey Kent Desormeaux said he was forced to tap on the brakes a bit when a rival cut in front of him around the far turn.

Exaggerator was 1 1/4 lengths short of Nyquist at the finish, the winner running 2:01.31 in the fastest winning time since Funny Cide in 2003.

Kent Desormeaux said he might have lost between 4 and 5 lengths when he took up, but still gave plenty of credit to the winner.

“Nyquist, I don’t know, he’s a super horse,” he said. “I’m just proud of my brother. We had a ball. It was fun.”

Keith Desormeaux was equally effusive of praise for Nyquist and for Exaggerator, who he trains for the partnership of Big Chief Racing, Head of Plains Partners and Rocker O Ranch.

“I didn’t see where Nyquist was throughout the race until after it was over,” Keith Desormeaux said. “He was right there on the pace, man, what a horse. I can’t respect that horse enough. But yeah, when you see 45 and change and you’re going a mile and a quarter, yeah I started salivating.

“He burst out of the turn and had clear running room all the way down, a quarter-mile, and my horse is fast. I thought we’d catch him for sure. That’s another comment Kent made, we did kind of level off the last sixteenth, so he might have ran out of training.”

Exaggerator’s runner-up finish was the sixth Keith Desormeaux-trained horse to finish second to Nyquist. Swipe was second to the champion in four straight races last summer and fall, including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and Exaggerator was second in the San Vicente and now the Kentucky Derby.

Many might consider that bad fortune, but not Desormeaux. He’ll try again in the Preakness Stakes May 21 at Pimlico.

“Of course; it’s too much fun,” he said. “I’m at a loss for words, it doesn’t make me angry that I keep running second. It’s cool. My horses are running their race, we’re getting outrun by a very nice horse, we’ll tweak a few things and see if we can catch him next time. It’s only two weeks until the next race so it doesn’t depend on a lot of training in between, so I can’t screw him up.”

The quick turnaround, and Nyquist’s relatively light schedule of only two preps leading up to the Derby, should also prove beneficial heading to Maryland.

O’Neill planned to ship Nyquist to Baltimore Monday so he could get nearly two full weeks of training on the Pimlico surface. He employed a similar strategy in 2012, when I’ll Have Another added the Preakness to his victory two weeks earlier in the Kentucky Derby.

O’Neill credited some of his past experience with I’ll Have Another at the Derby with helping get Nyquist to his crowning moment Saturday. He didn’t worry about schooling Nyquist in the afternoon once he arrived at Churchill Downs, because he hadn’t done it with I’ll Have Another. He also didn’t breeze Nyquist over the track before the Derby, unlike the trainers of 17 of his 19 opponents who did.

Again, the lessons were learned, he put the team in place and listened to what they had to say.

“He’s just a special horse,” O’Neill said. “It’s safe to say, Lava Man is unbelievable and I’ll Have Another is unbelievable, but he’s definitely the best horse I have ever been around.

“And Jonny Garcia, who gets on him every day, he’s been saying for a while now that this horse is so strong and does everything so easy and, you know, he’s never tired. … It doesn’t seem like we have ever really gotten to the bottom of him. That’s very exciting about the future. And, again, like every other athlete, you just got to stay injury‑free. A lot of ice. A lot of prayers. A lot of Elias. And that’s all good.”