The field for next Saturday’s Kentucky Derby is not unlike other years, filled with intrigue, doubt and hope. Especially hope.
If you look at the 20 horses scheduled to go to post, you’ll find they’ve run 125 races, with 57 winning efforts. Twenty-nine of those wins were graded stakes. No shortage of talent.
But on paper, there should be no question which horse is the best, an undefeated colt, based at Santa Anita, who has done absolutely, positively nothing wrong. Yet there are doubters.
Nyquist won all five races as a 2-year-old including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. In the 35 years of the Breeders’ Cup only once has that horse gone on to win the Kentucky Derby, Street Sense in 2007. So, that’s one strike against Nyquist.
The Doug O’Neill colt traveled to Gulfstream to take on the best horse in the east, undefeated Mohaymen. Nyquist won going away. So he must be due for a bounce race, right? Another strike.
Even with a prohibitive favorite looming, there are still plenty of story lines for Saturday’s race.
Does Nyquist have the distance to go 1 ¼ miles?
He’s one of three horses in the race sired by Uncle Mo. The knock on Uncle Mo is that he never won at more than 1 1/16 miles. But he’s got a good reason for that. He spent most of his 3-year-old campaign suffering from a liver ailment that knocked him out of the Triple Crown races. He retired at the end of the year having run only eight lifetime races.
Doug O’Neill, who trains the Uncle Mo-sired Nyquist, explained it this way.
“Dennis [O’Neill] and I are full brothers,” using the same term used for horses that have the same sire and mare. “And I like to eat a lot but he doesn’t. So you can’t read anything into the breeding.”
What is the pace likely to be?
The race is devoid of lightning-like early speed. Outwork, winner of the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, and Danzing Candy, winner of the San Felipe at Santa Anita, are the best two speed horses in the race.
Which horse is the best closer?
Exaggerator probably has the best mid-race move but he’s not considered a classic closer.
The buzz is on Creator, whose last-to-first move to win the Arkansas Derby was impressive by any standard. Suddenbreakingnews, second in that race, also has some late speed.
Brody’s Cause came from far back to win the Blue Grass Stakes beating late-running My Man Sam. Trojan Nation, still a maiden, made a strong move but finished second in the Wood.
And there is Mor Spirit, the colt trained by Bob Baffert and ridden by Gary Stevens. Mor Spirit is steady and, if you throw out his Santa Anita Derby second over a sloppy track, was showing clear improvement in every race.
The thing about closers is it’s really easy to get in trouble, end up behind a wall of slower horses, or get blocked in a 20-horse field. A couple of these horses will not be flying at the end.
Soft early fractions from the light speed in the race could also be trouble for the late comers.
What happened to Mohaymen, wasn’t he supposed to be the best?
After five straight wins, his badly beaten fourth in the Florida Derby had a lot of supporters going elsewhere. But every horse, even Triple Crown winners such as Secretariat and American Pharoah, can have a bad race.
The chances of two bad races in a row by this gray, not very likely.
Will there be back-to-back Triple Crown winners?
Before American Pharoah, the last Triple Crown winner was Affirmed in 1978, which came one year after Seattle Slew accomplished that feat. So, that little statistical oddity is viewed as a bit of racing karma heading into this season.
Sure, it’s possible, but the toughest race to win is always the Kentucky Derby if for no other reason than a 20-horse field. Add in more than 150,000 people in the stands and it takes a very special horse to not get nervous or rattled as post time approaches.
If a colt can navigate those factors, the Preakness becomes a much easier proposition. And the Belmont? That’s five weeks after the Derby, why worry about that now.