Even those expecting an exciting race in the first meaningful showdown between Kentucky Derby prospects Nyquist and Exaggerator were left speechless.
If you’re familiar with the energy and power that horses use in the final stretch run, imagine what it would be like if two horses used that drive for most of seven furlongs.
On Monday, Nyquist won such a race in a jaw-dropping performance in the San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita. If Exaggerator had been running against most any other 3-year-old on the West Coast he probably would have won going away. Against Nyquist, he lost by 1 1/2 lengths.
“Goodness gracious, can anyone not be a believer in Nyquist now?” said Keith Desormeaux, and he trained the second-place horse. “That was an awesome race.”
Winning trainer Doug O’Neill saw it this way: “I hit the horsey lottery.” And then tried to top his own metaphor with, “I hit the Powerball of 3-year-olds.”
Bettors showed their conditional support by betting $182,647 of $225,473 on the colt to finish no worse than third in the five-horse race. State law requires that no payout be less than 10 cents on every two dollars bet. To meet that obligation, the track lost $34,035.72 in the minus show pool. Nyquist paid $2.80 to win.
The knock against Nyquist, why may now be more of a whisper, is that he may not have the distance to go 1 1/4 miles, the length of the Kentucky Derby. Monday’s race was 7/8ths of a mile, difficult because it’s too long for a sprint and too short for a distance race.
“They can give him respect or not,” said owner Paul Reddam, who in 2012 ran I’ll Have Another to victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness before the colt scratched in the Belmont Stakes because of a tendon injury.
“That’s not going to affect his performance on the race track. We try not to take any of that personally.”
The reason they might not is that Nyquist has a $1-million incentive if he were to win the Florida Derby. Horse seller Fasig-Tipton is offering the bonus to any horse that came out of last year’s Florida sale and then goes on to win the Florida Derby this year. O’Neill and Reddam said this year that they planned to go to Florida.
The trainer didn’t bite when asked if there was any reason not to run at Gulfstream Park. That reason would be Mohaymen, who is unbeaten in four starts and the top horse in early Kentucky Derby betting pools.
“I think we all checked ourselves to not get too far ahead of ourselves,” O’Neill said. “Probably in a couple days, we’ll be able to say where our next spot will be.”
Reddam may have tipped the answer by saying, “There is the temptation to stay home because we love Santa Anita. But we’ll see.”
Exaggerator’s next race is scheduled to be the San Felipe on March 12 and then the Santa Anita Derby on April 9. Bob Baffert, trainer of the other marquee West Coast horse Mor Spirit, hasn’t announced when or where his horse might race next.
One thing that Nyquist’s owner and trainer can’t agree on is the pressure of continuing to be undefeated.
“I hate being the chalk [favorite] like today,” Reddam said. “Looking from the outside you think it might be a lock, but from the inside you know there are 15 different ways this could go badly.”
O’Neill’s perspective is less ominous.
“It’s a lot more pressure when you haven’t won” he said, “and you owe the feed guy a lot of money.”
Nyquist has won more than $1.7 million so far. Feed bill? No problem.