LOUISVILLE — A Derby week morning brings boundless hope, unshakeable faith and malleable logic. Here, in the hours after sunrise, in the slanting light of a rising sun, horses entered in the Kentucky Derby jog, gallop or sprint (think of it as “practice’’) in final preparation for the most important race in America. They wear yellow saddle cloths with their names on the side because otherwise, to all but the most professional observers, it would be difficult to tell them apart. Thousands of Kentuckians flood the race track to watch these training sessions and in a buzz of conversation that ripples along the outside rail of the track you can hear them handicapping on the fly, and it seems that they are all winners.
The Derby’s reality is much harsher. Of the 20 three-year-old colts who are loaded into the starting gate (actually two starting gates, to accommodate the huge field) at a little past 6:30 on Saturday evening, at least half a dozen are physically overmatched and another half dozen will be eliminated by the traffic chaos that ensues in the first three-eighths of a mile (some unfortunate starters will fall into both categories). A few good and worthy horses will be compromised by pace or tactics and a few others will just get tired. It is a race not just to measure greatness, but also racing luck and survival.
And it is also a puzzle, this year both much simpler and much more complex than most years. (Although it is always a puzzle.)
The simple question: How good is Nyquist? Unbeaten in seven lifetime races, Eclipse champion and Breeders Cup juvenile race winner and dominant victor in the Florida Derby prep race five weeks ago, Nyquist (named for Gustav Nyquist of the Detroit Red Wings because owner J. Paul Reddam is a Red Wings’ fan) is the 3–1 morning line favorite and second choice (Exaggerator) is a distant 8–1. That’s a heavy favorite. But uncertainties linger: Will Nyquist be able to outrun his pedigree and get the 1 ¼ -mile Derby distance? Has he prepared strongly enough, with just two prep races? And of course, will he get a favorable trip?
If all of these things happen, Nyquist is too good for the others here. Too fast, too tough, too classy. It’s fun to argue that the Derby is always a wide-open race because it’s three-year-olds running 1 ¼ miles for the first (and for most, the last) time in their lives and because of the ridiculous 20-horse field, which is unique to American racing. But lately, the best horse has been winning the Derby. American Pharoah was the best horse last year (and won at less than peak fitness). California Chrome was the best horse in 2014. Orb was the best horse in 2013. (I’ll Have Another was certainly one of the best in 2012 and likewise Animal Kingdom in 2011). Nyquist is the best horse this year.
This brings us to more complex questions: What if the pace or tactics in the race make it impossible for Nyquist to win? What if Nyquist gets the perfect trip around the Churchill Downs oval and simply gets tired after 1 1/8 miles? “The distance is the one question I have,’’ says Keith Desormeaux, who trains Exaggerator, winner of the Santa Anita Derby. “Nyquist is a beautiful mover and he’s got a high will to win.’’ If Nyquist cannot deliver, the race devolves into a tactical free-for-all in which at least four horses hope to reach the top of the stretch in the lead and hang on and at least four others hope to run down collapsing leaders. It is extremely rare in the Kentucky Derby for a handful of horses to remain in contention in the final furlong, but if Nyquist fails, it could happen this year.
The race breaks down into a series of tactical dominoes.
1. Danzing Candy, the California-based winner of the San Felipe Stakes on March 12 at Santa Anita Race Track, is the fastest horse in the field and had been expected to set the early pace, mostly likely ensuring honest early fractions and giving others a target to chase. However, Danzing Candy drew the outside, No. 20, post position, which means jockey Mike Smith, not customarily an aggressive gate jockey, will have to gun Danzing Candy across the race track and into the lead before the first turn. There is plenty of time to accomplish this, but Smith will have to be rolling to get there, which could make the pace even faster. It also creates the possibility of horses pinballing off each other if Danzing Candy angles in too sharply. “It’s dangerous,’’ says Kent Desormeaux, Keith’s brother and Exaggerator’s jockey. “I don’t think that will happen with an experienced rider like Mike Smith, but it’s always a possibility.’’
Assuming Danzing Candy gets to the lead…
2. Several other horses with tactical speed (“stalkers,’’ in handicapping parlance) will settle in behind, most notably Nyquist, Wood Memorial winner Outwork, Louisiana Derby winner Gun Runner and Mohaymen, who most handicappers viewed as the likely Derby favorite until his flat-as-a-pancake loss to Nyquist in the Florida Derby. There could be others; these are the obvious choices. (Also, if Danzing Candy can’t get to the lead, it’s entirely possibly that Nyquist would be there, and, says trainer Doug O’Neill, “We’ll take that. Nyquist has shown that he can win from on the lead.’’ (Nyquist went wire-to-wire in the Florida Derby).
Behind those horses loom a gaggle of deep closers, including Exaggerator, Arkansas Derby winner Creator, runner-up Whitmore and third-place finisher Suddenbreakingnews, Blue Grass Stakes winner Brody’s Cause and runner-up My Man Sam, and hard-luck Mo Tom, twice blocked on the rail while commencing aggressive finishes in the Risen Star Stakes and Louisiana Derby. All of them will try to settle in behind the stalkers and stay out of serious trouble; they won’t all succeed.
*It’s worth noting here that the potential race shape is unusual: The lone raw speed on the outside, stalkers in the middle and closers on the inside. “Weird race,’’ says Bob Baffert, who trained last year’s Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah, and this year trains Santa Anita derby runner-up Mor Spirit. “It’s really going to be three separate races.’’
3. If Danzing Candy is able to get to the lead, he will eventually collapse and get passed by all, or most of the stalking horses. They will run as a group to the top of the stretch, at which point all of them will begin to tire. The closers will gather for a run down the stretch.
If you like storylines with your Derby selections, there are plenty:
The Nyquist team of trainer O’Neill, owner Reddam and jockey Mario Gutierrez are back after winning the Derby (and the Preakness) with I’ll Have Another in 2012.
Outwork (like Nyquist) is from the first stallion crop sired by Uncle Mo, the presumptive 2011 Derby favorite, who was scratched with illness during Derby week; what’s more, Outwork is owned by Mike Repole, the Queens entrepreneur who also owned Uncle Mo (and still owns a piece of him at stud). “Uncle Mo will always be my favorite horse,’’ says Repole. “I could have 10,000 horses, and Uncle Mo will be my favorite horse.’’
Gun Runner and Creator are both trained by Steve Asmussen who two years labored under the weight of a showy PETA investigation (he was exonerated by two racing boards) and now comes to the race after his recent election of the Racing Hall of Fame. Mor Spirit has the irrepressible Baffert, seeking his fifth Derby win, which would put him alone in second place behind only Ben Jones, who won six Derbies in the middle of the 20th century. Mo Tom and Tom’s Ready are both owned by New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson. Whitmore is trained by the husband and wife team of Ron and Laura Moquett and will be ridden—for the first time—by Victor Espinoza, who will be seeking to become the first jockey in Derby history to win three in a row, after Chrome and Pharoah.
More? There are the Desormeaux brothers with Exaggerator. There is Mohaymen’s trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin a Lexington, Ken., native who has battled multiple sclerosis for two decades. The Derby is always Narrative Christmas.
This will my 15th Derby for Sports Illustrated. I went 1 for 12 (Smarty Jones in 2004) before correctly nailing Orb in ’13 and California Chrome in ’14 (both chalk). Last year, I picked not future Triple Crown-winner American Pharoah, but his stablemate, Dortmund, who finished a game third. Consider yourselves warned.
Nyquist has one significant tactical battle to win: He is in the No. 13 post with good, fast horses outside him: Mohaymen in 14, Outwork in 15 and Mor Spirit in 17. Nyquist has to run fast enough early to avoid getting pinned down or roughed up by those opponents. I believe he will succeed in doing this, and the freshness preserved by running only two races in 2016 will serve him well.
Mohaymen ran poorly in the Florida Derby, the only bad race of his career; I expect him to recover here and hang with Nyquist around the racetrack. Mor Spirit will make a run on the turn, get close and flatten out.
To me, the closers are almost all one-run plodders who can only succeed if the horses at the front—Nyquist, Mohaymen, Outwork and Mor Spirit—collapse. Exaggerator showed an explosive move in winning the Santa Anita Derby from far behind, but even Keith Desormeaux attributes that to the slowing of horses in front. If Mo Tom gets a clean run at the wire, he will close on the leaders.
But this time, again, the best horse wins. 1. Nyquist 2. Mohaymen 3. Mo Tom 4. Outwork. Possibly.