Nyquist gets buzz started early at Keeneland

- -

Doug O’Neill answered all the questions from the small group of reporters, responding with all the usual and expected things the trainer of the Kentucky Derby favorite might say. Fans and other interested onlookers whipped out their smartphones and snapped away, while the more legit photographers and videographers did their thing to capture the scene on a beautiful morning in the Bluegrass at Keeneland.

The scene, which unfolded a few minutes after Nyquist turned in his first serious workout since the Florida Derby nearly two weeks ago, wasn’t quite on par with what will unfold in a few weeks time down to the road at Churchill Downs but it was pretty close.

Nothing quite compares with the Derby Week scene, but Maker’s Mark Mile Day serves as a pretty tasty appetizer roughly three weeks out from the main course.

Nyquist didn’t break any stopwatches with his 5-furlong workout – officially timed in 1:02.60 with unofficial splits of :12 3/5, :24 4/5, :37 1/5 and galloping out 6 furlongs in 1:17 1/5 – but he did enough to get people talking. Opinions varied on whether it was a good move or not, standard fare at this time of the year when there’s more opinions around than extra Derby tickets.

O’Neill and his team were content enough with the move. The trainer and exercise rider Jonny Garcia fist-bumped on the horse path near the racing office gap shortly after Nyquist came off the track alongside assistant Jack Sisterson on the stable pony. Back at the barn to the press the expected came forth.

“He just keeps amazing us on a daily basis,” O’Neill said as Nyquist walked the shedrow sporting a purple cooler he won for taking the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile here last fall. “When he has a lot of friends and family around he steps up his game. He loves it, he thrives on the activity and all the attention and that takes a special horse.”

O’Neill was pleased with how well the undefeated Uncle Mo colt cooled out after his work, which went down barely after daybreak and a shade past 7 a.m.

Less than a mile from Barn 24 where O’Neill’s small string in bedded down, hundreds of otherwise oblivious folks packed into the Keeneland Entertainment Center on the hill to get their commemorative Maker’s Mark bottles signed by legendary Kentucky basketball coach Joe B. Hall.

Maker’s Mark Mile Day always starts with that tradition and it will continue throughout the day with a big crowd expected to turn out and enjoy the 10-race card under sunny skies with temperatures inching toward 80 degrees. The Grade 1 Maker’s 46 Mile itself draw a strong field led by Heart To Heart, Tourist, Reload and the filly Miss Temple City.

All that was set to come later in the day.

Early in the day it was all about Nyquist.

A champion on the grounds has that effect.

O’Neill said Nyquist would stay at Keeneland for his next two workouts, probably on back-to-back Fridays April 22 and 29, before taking the short van ride down Interstate 64 to Churchill Downs April 30.

“We’ll huddle up whether he needs company his last work but I don’t think he will,” O’Neill said of the schedule. “He was so good today, so willing, he galloped out strong that I don’t think he’s going to need company so I think it will be very similar.”

Nyquist will go to the Derby with a perfect record of 7-for-7, including wins this season in the Grade 2 San Vicente going 7 furlongs at Santa Anita Park and the Grade 1 Xpressbet.com Florida Derby going 9 furlongs.

Questions linger about Nyquist’s ability to handle the 10 furlongs of the Kentucky Derby, but those same queries come up every spring.

“He hasn’t done anything wrong,” O’Neill said. “None of them have gone a mile and a quarter yet so it’s a question for all of them. What he did in the Breeders’ Cup, getting banged out of the gate, going wide on both turns, showed a lot, so I don’t think that will be a problem.”

Nyquist backed up with the pony around the far turn before breaking off at a steady pace through the stretch the first time.

That was part of the plan, to two-minute lick the colt before getting started on his breeze, and is frequently a part of O’Neill’s training program. He went easy to the three-quarter pole on the backstretch before getting serious at the 5/8ths. The first two furlongs from the three-quarter to the half-mile pole were caught unofficially by this writer’s watch in :12.85 and :12.64.

“We do that with a lot of them,” O’Neill said of quickening the pace a bit before breaking off at the pole. “It’s good for their minds, good for their breathing, good for their stride. It’s something in lieu of working them real hard in company I think you can get just as much out of what we did today.”

Even though he favors that practice for a fitness standpoint, O’Neill knows it’s no substitute for natural ability. Specifically the ability to handle the 1 1/4 miles of the Derby, which he won in 2012 with I’ll Have Another.

“It really helps (but) if you have a horse that can’t go a mile and a quarter you could work them 3 miles and they’re not going to go a mile and quarter,” he said. “He’s a special horse and we’re just trying to keep him happy, mentally sound, physically sound and just keep him moving the right way.”