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Nyquist connections eager for next leg in Triple Crown

Childs Walker
The Baltimore Sun

Louisville, Ky. — The revelry after Nyquist’s Kentucky Derby victory was joyous but subdued, the team behind him all too aware they had completed just one of three chapters in a grander story.

Owner J. Paul Reddam, a Windsor native, and trainer Doug O’Neill, born in Dearborn, have traveled this road before, in 2012 with I’ll Have Another. And make no mistake — they believe they have a horse good enough to repeat American Pharoah’s Triple Crown from 2015, just as Affirmed followed Seattle Slew 38 years ago.

“We have more wood to chop, and we all realize that,” Reddam said Sunday morning outside Nyquist’s barn. “Obviously, everyone’s ecstatic to have won the Derby. But minds immediately went to, ‘OK, we’ve got to go to the Preakness.’ ... Everybody’s happy, but it’s a more mature happy.”

O’Neill was already on a flight home to California, where he planned to make a quick visit before turning around to join his horse in Baltimore. But his racing manager, Steve Rothblum, said Nyquist had eaten well after the race and looked “like a million bucks.”

The Derby champion will arrive in Baltimore on Monday afternoon as a presumptive favorite for the May 21 Preakness, where he’ll likely face another rematch with his chief antagonist, Derby runner-up Exaggerator. But on Sunday morning at Churchill Downs, talk already had moved ahead to whether the undefeated colt could match American Pharoah.

O’Neill’s senior assistant, Leandro Mora, said Nyquist will have a major leg up because he can win in so many different ways.

“He has two or three different styles,” Mora said. “When you only have a closer or only have a speed horse, you always worry, because you don’t know what’s going to happen when they come out of the gate.”

He compared Nyquist to Seattle Slew, the 1977 Triple Crown winner who helped him fall in love with the sport when he was a young hot walker in California.

The Preakness field will begin to take shape over the next week. Exaggerator’s trainer, Keith Desormeaux, said he’d like another shot at Nyquist, who has beaten his horse four times now. Exaggerator was gaining ground on Nyquist as they neared the wire Saturday and finished 1 1/4 lengths back. But even as the horses galloped out, Nyquist would not allow his rival to pass. Perhaps he never will.

Steve Asmussen, the trainer of third-place Derby finisher Gun Runner and 13th-place finisher Creator, was non-committal when asked about his horses racing in the Preakness.

“They’re not going to go anywhere in the immediate future,” he said. “We’ll give them a couple of days, probably go back to the track with them Wednesday. ... We’ll see how we think they’re doing.”

He said both horses seemed to recover well from the Derby and have good races ahead of them. The Hall of Fame trainer was particularly pleased with Gun Runner’s Derby effort, which briefly had him thinking victory was within grasp.

“He was right next to the horse that won the race,” Asmussen said. “But Nyquist is an undefeated, Eclipse Award-winning, Kentucky Derby champion.”

Other possible entrants for the Preakness include Laoban and Cherry Wine, the two “also-eligible” Derby horses who would have gotten into the field if any of the top 20 had scratched.

Todd Pletcher-trained Stradivari and Bob Baffert-trained Collected, winner of the April 16 Lexington Stakes, are also in the mix. So is Awesome Speed, who won the Federico Tesio Stakes at Laurel Park on April 9.

The trainers for Suddenbreakingnews, fifth in the Derby, and Brody’s Cause, seventh in the Derby, also left open the possibility of running in the Preakness.

Other potential entrants include Adventist, third in the Wood Memorial; Uncle Lino, third in the Santa Anita Derby, and Fellowship, third in the Florida Derby.

Regardless of the exact makeup, Nyquist will face a weaker field than he did at Churchill Downs, so most of the questions will center on how he’ll handle the heavy workload of the Triple Crown.

It’s part of the reason O’Neill put Nyquist in only two Derby prep races and trained him relatively gently heading into the race. His eye was always on the bigger picture.

“It’s what we’re faced with,” Rothblum said of the schedule. “It’s the Triple Crown. With this horse, he’s very sound. He’s a wonderful athlete. He’s dead fit, so onward and upward. Would anybody rather wait 30 days or five weeks in between? Sure, but that’s not the nature of the beast.”

In recent years, Derby winners have tended to arrive at Pimlico just four or five days before the Preakness. But O’Neill brought I’ll Have Another early in 2012, and that worked out just swell. So he’s doing it again.

“I think Doug is going to do that because this chapter is done here,” Reddam said. “As much as it’s been nice to be at Churchill these last few days, I know he got a really great vibe out of being in Baltimore four years ago. He was running around kissing babies and throwing out balls. I think that’ll calm down some, but he really enjoyed the Baltimore leg quite a bit.”

He acknowledged the Preakness will be a tenser race as the weight of the history Nyquist could make begins to press closer. Reddam knows what it’s like to stand on the cusp of the Triple Crown. I’ll Have Another was a 4-5 favorite in the Belmont Stakes when O’Neill had to scratch him the day before the race because of a swollen tendon.

Already, O’Neill has said Nyquist is a better horse than his 2012 Derby and Preakness champion. So it’s hard for those around him not to think ahead.

“I was excited about the Derby but not really nervous,” Reddam said. “I think I’ll be more nervous for the Preakness just because this could all really happen.”

One terrifying thought for the rest of this 3-year-old-crop — Reddam and O’Neill don’t believe they’ve discovered the depths of Nyquist’s talent.

“We don’t even know how good this horse really is yet,” Reddam said. “Except for his maiden race, where he really did get tested, he has won every one of his races with a little something left in the tank.”

Preakness Stakes

When: Saturday, May 21, 6:05 p.m.

Where: Pimlico Race Course, Baltimore

Distance: 1 3/16 miles


2015 winner: American Pharoah