Lesson Learned From Nyquist and Team O'Neill

It took eight races, five grade I victories, and a Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Kentucky Derby victory, but Nyquist finally closed the book on the American Pharoah saga and began scripting his own legacy.

Having to ride on the tail of the American Pharoah comet, it didn’t come easily. Racing fans either found it difficult or refused to let go of last year’s Triple Crown winner. It was like seeing the last ember go out of a fireplace that they had snuggled up to and felt comforted by for the past year. 

American Pharoah still lives in our hearts, and always will, but Nyquist now occupies our minds and has begun to infiltrate those same hallowed corridors that are reserved for only a precious few.

Little did anyone know that the day before American Pharoah’s historic Belmont Stakes victory, the horse to whom he would be passing his torch would be winning a five-furlong maiden race nearly 3,000 miles away by a head at odds of 7-1. Like Pharoah, he was a nondescript-looking colt with no markings by a young unproven sire. By the time the Breeders’ Cup rolled around, both colts would be sharing the glory – one assuring himself the 2-year-old championship and the other a place in racing’s pantheon.        

Since he began his ascent to stardom, however, Nyquist has been in the unenviable position of Mantle following DiMaggio, Marciano following Louis, Forego following Secretariat. Not only did they have to prove their greatness and endear themselves to the public, they had to dim the memory of their predecessors, at least enough to allow people to open their hearts to a new hero. Only greatness can accomplish that.

For Nyquist, that hasn’t come easily. He didn’t possess the home run power of Mantle or the knockout power of Marciano or the imposing physical stature of Forego. The margin of his eight victories combined was only half the margin of Secretariat’s Belmont Stakes. It took mostly hard-earned victories at six different distances, from five furlongs to 1 1/4 miles, at five different racetracks from California to Florida to Kentucky. In those eight starts, no horse has ever been able to pass him. When anyone came close, it was like confronting a badger, described as “normally a quiet and docile creature that becomes ferocious and courageous when cornered or threatened.”

No one could knock Nyquist’s will to win, as he rattled off victory after victory in machine gun-like fashion. But many were skeptical of his pedigree, thinking of his young sire Uncle Mo as more of a one-turn horse and his broodmare sire Forestry as more of a speed influence. What they failed to realize was that Uncle Mo’s two grandsires were In Excess, who ran the fastest mile and a quarter in the history of New York racing, and Arch, who was a top stamina influence, siring Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Blame. Also, Nyquist’s female family traces to the legendary two-time Arc de Triomphe winner Ribot twice, as well as Horses of the Year and Hall of Famers Dr. Fager, Buckpasser, and Arts and Letters, with the last two being winners of the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup.

What really captured the public’s attention was when Nyquist won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, despite having to go six-wide on the first turn and four-wide at the head of the stretch. No one can appreciate Nyquist’s uncanny ability to reach the finish line first in any manner possible more than trainer Keith Desormeaux, who has developed a pair of extremely talented colts in Exaggerator and Swipe. Eight times he has tested Nyquist with both colts and eight times he’s been defeated, finishing second in six of those races, in which his average margin of defeat was two lengths. Desormeaux would be the first to admit that Nyquist is the ultimate tease, not only allowing you get close enough to briefly give you hope of victory, but having you come out of each defeat believing you can beat him the next time, whether with a different strategy or longer distance. But each next time is like “Groundhog Day.” It just keeps repeating itself. Despite that, he’ll try again in the Preakness.

As a historian and traditionalist, I have stated on several occasions this year that I am a firm believer, as were the trainers of the past, in starting a horse’s 3-year-old campaign in a sprint to sharpen him up for rigors of the Triple Crown trail, especially those with extensive 2-year-old campaigns competing at the highest level. 

Back in January, I wrote that, going back to the 1960s and 1970s and even the majority of the 1980s, the following 2-year-old and 3-year-old champions and classic winners made their 3-year-old debut in a sprint:

In the 1970s, Triple Crown winners Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, Riva Ridge, Foolish Pleasure, Hoist the Flag, Little Current, Key to the Mint, Honest Pleasure, Bold Forbes, Rockhill Native, and we’ll include Alydar on the list.

In the 1960s, Damascus, Buckpasser, Arts and Letters, Majestic Prince, Kelso, Northern Dancer, Bold Lad, Top Knight, Chateaugay, Successor, and Vitriolic.

And in the 1980s, Easy Goer, Sunday Silence, Swale, Spend a Buck, Devil’s Bag, Chief’s Crown, Conquistador Cielo, Forty Niner, Gulch, and Plugged Nickle.

A total of 19 of these came in allowance races, and the rest were in the Hutcheson, Bahamas, Bay Shore, Swale, Swift, Hibiscus, Los Feliz, San Miguel, and Key West Stakes, several of which no longer exist. All the emphasis now is on earning Derby points, and there are zero points given to sprint stakes. So trainers, not wanting to waste their time running for no points, naturally keep their Derby hopefuls away from the sprints.

Only two trainers this year decided to follow the old school philosophy and start their Derby horses off in a sprint, and that was Nyquist’s trainer Doug O’Neill and Desormeaux, whose horses as we all know finished first and second, respectively, in the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes in a blazing 1:20 3/5 and then went on to finish first and second in the Kentucky Derby.

But there was a twist. O’Neill and owner Paul Reddam, who had already teamed up to win the Derby in 2012 with I’ll Have Another, decided to schedule only one more race for Nyquist instead of giving him the more traditional two races at two turns. They also decided to bypass the two logical California preps, the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby, and journey across the country for the Florida Derby and a chance at a $1 million bonus offered to the owner of any horse who sold at the Fasig-Tipton 2-year-olds in training sale at Gulfstream and then captured the Florida Derby.

That gave me cause for concern. Not only would Nyquist have to try to win the Kentucky Derby off only one two-turn race and one sprint, something that hasn’t been accomplished in modern times, it turned out he would have to face the consensus Derby favorite Mohaymen (who had 429 points in the NTRA poll to Nyquist’s 384 points). Mohaymen, like Nyquist, was undefeated and the winner of four graded stakes, and Nyquist would have to face him at Mohaymen’s own track, over which he had won the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth Stakes in impressive fashion.

Still, O’Neill and Reddam stuck to their plan. They remembered the hard preps I’ll Have Another had and the vigorous training program he was put through. I’ll Have Another won the Derby and Preakness, but had one strong open gallop too many the Thursday before the Belmont Stakes and came out of it with an injury that forced his retirement the following day. The vast majority felt he would have won the Belmont easily.

They were not about to let that happen again. This time, they were willing to take the gamble that Nyquist’s extraordinary talent, courage, and toughness would be enough to win the Kentucky Derby off one two-turn prep, and if they could get past that hurdle, then they would have a fresh horse for the remainder of the Triple Crown.

Paul Reddam and I have been good friends for several years, and one of my greatest moments covering the Kentucky Derby was doing the “walk” with him and I’ll Have Another and then seeing the colt relentlessly wear down Bodemeister in the final sixteenth.

But this time, the traditionalist in me came out, and after learning of their plan, Paul and I engaged in some friendly sparring regarding the conservative schedule they had mapped out, although my intention never was to try to change their mind. It was just two friends talking racing and exchanging ideas. As I knew they would, they remained steadfast in their decision.

We have witnessed a new era in racing, with trainers taking a more conservative approach to training and racing. And with this change in philosophy has come new ground being paved, especially in rewriting the Kentucky Derby history books. So it should have come as no surprise to see Team O’Neill successfully take it to a new level this year.

Perhaps their greatest accomplishment was knowing what kind of special horse they had and having complete faith in his ability to find a way to win race after race, whether winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile coming from eighth and losing a ton of ground or the Florida Derby leading every step of the way or the Kentucky Derby stalking a blistering pace of :22 2/5, :45 3/5, and 1:10 2/5. They knew they had the ultimate winning machine on their hands and it didn’t matter how many times they pushed the start button. He would find a way to win.

When he soundly defeated Mohaymen in the Florida Derby, his bandwagon began to pick up new passengers by the day, and by the time the Derby rolled around he had separated himself from the others, as reflected by his 2-1 odds, which were shorter than American Pharoah’s odds in the Derby. Although most of the experts felt this was a wide-open race, Nyquist and Exaggerator were the only two horses in single-digit odds, with a huge gap from Exaggerator’s 5-1 odds to the third choice at 10-1. When Nyquist crossed the finish line 1 1/4 lengths in front of a fast-closing Exaggerator, the shadow that had been cast for so long by American Pharoah quickly began to fade, and Nyquist finally was able to step into the spotlight to the cheers of the crowd.

I never underestimated this horse and admired him greatly and finally began to come around, ranking Nyquist No. 1 the past six weeks and Nyquist and Exaggerator No. 1 and 2 the past five weeks, but still having some concerns about Nyquist’s schedule. After 48 years in this business, I’m still learning, and happily so. The day you stop learning is the day you admit ignorance.

When I left the Blood-Horse and semi-retired after last year’s Belmont Stakes, I thought the timing was perfect, because I had reached the pinnacle of my writing career and felt that no horse would ever affect me more emotionally than American Pharoah and no moment would ever exceed the exhilarating experience of the Belmont. I had seen the greatest horse and experienced the greatest moment I would ever again witness. But like with Secretariat, who was followed in that same decade by Forego, Ruffian, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Alydar, and Spectacular Bid, I should have known never to underestimate the power of horse racing, which has always found a way to follow a Hamlet with a MacBeth.

The first Triple Crown winner after Secretariat ended a 25-year drought was Seattle Slew, who became the first undefeated horse to sweep all three races. Could we be heading there again?

We will never experience the frenzied exultation of last year’s Belmont Stakes and the other unforgettable moments provided by American Pharoah. And most likely we will never have a horse reach quite that deep into our hearts. But with each performance by Nyquist, our admiration for the colt grows stronger and we open our hearts a little wider.

Nyquist, with the help of Doug O’Neill and Paul Reddam, showed me what a gifted horse is capable of, even when you believe history is against him. They showed me that history, regardless of how solid the ground it appears to be on, is meant to be re-written.

Along with Majestic Prince, Nyquist is the only horse since Morvich in 1922 to exit the Kentucky Derby undefeated in as many as eight starts. He is only the second Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner to win the Kentucky Derby and the first Derby winner to have won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and be sired by a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner. And, yes, he became the first horse in at least 70 years to win the Kentucky Derby off one two-turn race and one sprint at 3.

So, the story of Nyquist continues to be written as American Pharoah completes his first year as a stallion. When American Pharoah departed the racetrack, fans all over the country, addicted to the high they had experienced, all had the same thought, one that Paul Reddam could appreciate: “I’ll have another.”

And it looks as if that’s just what they got.

Thomas Jefferson once said, “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”

American Pharoah is gone from the racetrack, but thanks to Nyquist, the dreams continue.

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