There were the rumors of a soft tissue injury, called curb, a swelling on the back of the hock. There was the stigma of buying from the first crop of a sire who was known as a miler rather than the classic Derby distance. And the colt was even a tad slower in some of the workouts.
But then there was his look.
“If you were to draw a picture of a horse,” said bloodstock agent Dennis O’Neill, “you would draw Nyquist. He’s the prettiest horse that I’ve ever bought. He’s big and lean and very, very athletic.”
The sale price was $400,000, or about $1.25 million less than what Nyquist will earn if he wins Saturday’s Florida Derby.
This year’s race at Gulfstream Park is the most anticipated Florida Derby in decades. It’s the first time anyone can recall when the best horse from the East and the West raced each other before the Kentucky Derby. Better yet, both are undefeated.
O’Neill bought Nyquist at last year’s Fasig-Tipton thoroughbred sale for Paul Reddam and to be run out of his brother Doug’s training barn. Fasig-Tipton added value by offering any horse from that sale who goes on to win the Florida Derby a $1 million bonus.
Nyquist was named best 2-year-old last year after winning all five races, including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. It was a race he had no business winning after finding trouble all around the track but still beating the best 2-year-olds at that time. In his only race this year, he set near track-record times at Santa Anita in the San Vicente Stakes.
His rival is Mohaymen, undefeated in five races including a pair of Grade 2 stakes wins over the same Gulfstream Park surface. Expectations for him have always been high given his $2.2 million purchase price as a yearling.
“When we made the plan, we had no idea about Mohaymen,” Doug O’Neill said. “We knew he was a nice horse but the longer we got into the process we realized where he was going was where we were talking about going. We knew we were going to have to meet him anyway [at the Kentucky Derby.]”
The main appeal about Florida racing is that thoroughbreds have five weeks to recover before the Kentucky Derby, while most of the other horses will have only four weeks after their final tuneups.
“In horse racing you can change your mind 100 times,” Reddam said about the decision to go to Florida. “The only one who wavered a little was Doug after [Mohaymen won] the Holy Bull. But he thought it over for two minutes and we stayed with the plan.”
Doug O’Neill, who preaches nothing but optimism in his barn, is sold on this horse being able to make a little history.
“American Pharoah had that amazing gate speed, tons of class and a lot of stamina,” O’Neill said about last year’s Triple Crown winner. “Nyquist has all of that. I really think it’s a matter of keeping him injury free, getting some racing luck and I can see some crazy things happening.”
Reddam, a huge Detroit Red Wings fan, named Nyquist after Gustav Nyquist, who plays for the Wings. Reddam’s pinhooking business, which is horse racing slang for buying yearlings low and selling them high is called Red Wings.
Doug O’Neill deflects one particular similarity between the player and the horse. “Unlike most hockey players, Nyquist has all his teeth,” he said.
Nyquist has been impressive since being bought.
“From the day he got back to Santa Anita, he’s never taken a bad step,” Dennis O’Neill said. “When I saw him win the first time out, I got goose bumps. I thought this horse could be really, really good.”
Nyquist’s sire is Uncle Mo, who is considered a miler, causing some to doubt Nyquist’s ability to go 1 ¼ miles, the Kentucky Derby distance. “Once they get running it doesn’t matter,” Doug O’Neill said.
Nyquist has run 1 1/16 miles twice, winning the Front Runner Stakes at Santa Anita and then the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Saturday will be the first time he has stretched out to 1 1/8 miles. “To see him in the paddock at Keeneland [in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile] with all those people and he just never turned a hair,” Dennis O’Neill said.
There is little reason to believe that Nyquist will not be solid on Saturday.
“He’s very determined and he’s hard to get by,” said Kiaran McLaughlin, Mohaymen’s trainer. “He’s six for six and he knows where the finish line is.”
Nyquist has never been passed, something that speaks to the competitive nature of the colt.
“The one thing that could beat a horse like Nyquist,” said Doug O’Neill, “is if he’s on the lead and someone was five wide outside and he never got a chance to engage. If he engages with you, he’s going to be tough to beat and pass in his age group.”
Oddsmakers are calling Saturday’s race a virtual tossup. Mohaymen is listed at 1-1 on the morning line and Nyquist at 6-5.
Jay Privman, national correspondent for The Daily Racing Form, gives the slight edge of Nyquist. “In a match race you go with the speed,” he said. “And this is a match race. But both horses are very, very talented. It’s splitting hairs.”
Reddam, who also owned Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another, realizes this horse is special.
“The only time I get wound up and nervous is when I think we’re supposed to win a race,” Reddam said. “So, I’m feeling a certain amount of pressure.”
Despite Nyquist’s possible greatness, Reddam also views his colt with empathy, relating it back to when he was growing up in Canada.
“You want them to do well for themselves,” Reddam said. “When I was a kid my dad made me take swimming lessons in the winter. One time I was in the pool and almost drowning. Someone in the stands said what a terrible swimmer I was. My dad goes up to him and says, ‘Hey, that’s my son.’
“That’s how I feel. You just don’t want him to embarrass himself just like a parent could feel.”
Most would agree, there’s little chance of that on Saturday.
Follow John Cherwa on Twitter @jcherwa