Nyquist answers all questions heading into Preakness

For all the lessons learned about why it’s so difficult to win the Triple Crown, Nyquist has one very important factor going for him as he enters the Preakness Stakes in two weeks with talk already bubbling that he could join American Pharoah just one year after the 37-year drought was broken.

He’s the best horse of this 3-year-old crop, and apparently by a large margin.

That much seemed clear Saturday as Nyquist put forth an impressive effort to win the 142nd Kentucky Derby, upping his record to 8-for-8.

“He’s still undefeated,” said Kiaran McLaughlin, who trained fourth-place Mohaymen. “He’s a star.”

No more questions about Nyquist’s distance pedigree or whether his previous races were too slow to indicate potential greatness. Nyquist earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 103 for his Derby victory, the best of his career thus far and comparable to the 105 assigned to American Pharoah’s victory last year.

It was also a visually impressive race for Nyquist, who tracked in second place down the backstretch behind Danzing Candy, whose blazing pace of 45.72 seconds for the first half-mile doomed him coming around the final turn.

Though Nyquist also ran fast early in the race, he exploded off the final turn, needing only mild encouragement from jockey Mario Gutierrez to open up an insurmountable lead in the stretch. Exaggerator flew home to be second, but the diminishing gap of 1 1/4 lengths doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll have a better chance to catch him next time.

“If anybody watched Nyquist’s races you would see that he will not allow another horse to pass him,” Gutierrez said. “He’s the kind of horse that always has something left for whatever comes late. If anybody comes late, I know he’ll have something to respond to that.”

Kent Desormeaux, who rode Exaggerator, wasn’t so sure and felt as though getting into traffic trouble with roughly 1/2 mile remaining cost him the two lengths needed to catch Nyquist.

Either way, it appears Exaggerator, who was second-choice in the Derby, is the second-best 3-year-old in the country. And in nine career races, he has now lost four times to Nyquist.

“What a horse,” Keith Desormeaux, the trainer for Exaggerator, said. “I can’t respect that horse enough.”

Besides the fact he’s never lost, what makes Nyquist so tantalizing as a potential Triple Crown winner is his running style. He has enough early speed to go to the front if that’s what Gutierrez wants him to do, but he’s cooperative enough to relax if the pace is too quick. That versatility is crucial in both the Preakness and the Belmont and gives him a huge tactical advantage over a horse like Exaggerator, who is going to make one big late run.

“He’s the best horse I’ve ever been around,” said trainer Doug O’Neill, who also had 2012 Kentucky Derby winner I’ll Have Another. “Johnny Garcia (his exercise rider) has been saying for awhile now this horse is so strong and does everything so easy. He’s never tired. It doesn’t seem like we’ve gotten to the bottom of him, so that’s very exciting.”

The other edge for Nyquist, who shipped to Baltimore on Monday to begin Preakness preparations, is the competition.

Though it’s possible there’s a late-developing horse who could be a factor in the next two Triple Crown races, this appears to be a rather uninspiring group of 3-year-olds. Gun Runner ran a good enough third in the Derby to get another shot at Nyquist, but it’s unlikely very many horses from the Derby will follow him to Pimlico.

The most dangerous new opponents will likely be Bob Baffert-trained Collected, who has been pointing toward the Preakness since his victory in the Lexington Stakes, and Todd Pletcher’s Stradivari, who has only run twice but won those races by a combined 25 lengths.

But Nyquist isn’t the first horse to emerge from the Derby looking unbeatable — and most of them subsequently saw something go wrong by the end of the Triple Crown. Whether it was Smarty Jones in 2004, Big Brown in 2008 or California Chrome just two years ago, the physical strain of winning these three races over five weeks impacts each horse differently. American Pharoah kept getting stronger, but most are simply worn out by the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes. I’ll Have Another didn’t even make it to the starting gate, having suffered a tendon injury the day before the race.

Can Nyquist stay healthy? And can he get through two more tough races with the shipping and hoopla and everything that comes with it to become the 13th Triple Crown winner in history? Being the best horse is important. But as history shows, it isn’t always enough.

“Mom, can you light a candle at Sunday mass?” O’Neill asked his mother, Dixie Lee, when the first questions about a possible Triple Crown bid came his way Saturday night. “We need a higher power to keep this guy injury free.”