Mario Gutierrez didn’t care. He was going to send a sheet of champagne to anyone who was within spraying distance. Doug O’Neill was more interested in sending the bubbly to his stomach.
It was a time of celebration for the jockey and trainer of Nyquist, who minutes before had won the 142nd Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on Saturday. It was also a time for good feelings about 2,000 miles away at Santa Anita, the unofficial centerpiece of California racing.
It was the fourth time in five years that a horse that trained in California has won the Kentucky Derby. And the three that preceded Nyquist in that span — I’ll Have Another (2012), California Chrome (2014) and American Pharoah (2015) — also won the Preakness Stakes. Pharoah went on to win the Belmont Stakes and become the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.
Southern California’s dominance is not so much the byproduct of planning but the beneficiary of geography.
“I think you are blessed in California,” said O’Neill. “You don’t have to move around a lot. I think a lot of people on the East Coast, they go down to Florida for the [winter]. So it takes time for horses to adjust to new tracks.”
Doug’s brother is Dennis, the bloodstock agent who bought both I’ll Have Another and Nyquist for owner Paul Reddam and had them placed in his brother’s barn.
“I think a huge part of [the success] is because we’re able to train,” Dennis O’Neill said. “And we train our horses hard. I think with the weather out here [in Kentucky], you can’t do that.
“We’ve talked about a lot of these horses probably get 80% of their training, where we’re able to train 100% of the time. I think that’s a real advantage out there.”
It was the same before the Florida Derby when Nyquist was shipped to Gulfstream to race against then undefeated Mohaymen. The opinions on which horse was better were divided along geographical lines.
“I think respect stops at the Rockies,” trainer John Shirreffs told Ed Golden of Santa Anita. “But now Nyquist’s team doesn’t have to climb over the Rockies. They can fly over them. It takes more than a good horse to win the Derby. It takes a tough horse.”
Shirreffs knows a thing or two about racing, having been Zenyatta’s trainer through her spectacular career.
Alan Balch, executive director of California Thoroughbred Trainers, remembers some classic showdowns between opposite-coast horses.
Affirmed was a West Coast horse, doing the majority of his racing at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. Alydar never raced west of Arlington Park near Chicago. Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978.
Sunday Silence was the West Coast horse who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness before losing to East Coaster Easy Goer in the Belmont in 1989.
“I think it’s healthy to have the East Coast versus West Coast rivalry,” Balch said. “It’s good for the business.”
Balch says that racing in California can also be intimidating.
“I hear horsemen talking about it all the time,” Balch said. “It’s been very difficult to bring a string of horses east to west and come and compete. … California racing is the toughest in the United States.”
Committing to the 1 3/16-mile race at Pimlico Race Course are Nyquist and second-place finisher Exaggerator, who stables at Santa Anita. Gary Sherlock, trainer of Uncle Lino, winner of the California Chrome Stakes at Los Alamitos, says he plans to go to Baltimore.
But most of the trainers are taking a few days to figure out their options.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert seems more inclined to send Collected, winner of the Lexington Stakes, to Pimlico rather than Mor Spirit, who ran a disappointing 10th in the Derby.
Laoban and Cherry Wine were the two also-eligible horses for the Derby so they will be extra fresh if they choose to run.
Steve Asmussen has not made a determination on Gun Runner, the third-place finisher.
Danzing Candy and Trojan Nation are both headed back to Santa Anita, so it’s unlikely they would be shipped cross-country again to run in the Preakness.
Connections for Suddenbreakingnews and Brody’s Cause are thinking hard about the Preakness.
Mohaymen is targeting the Belmont and Oscar Nominated is going back to being a turf horse.