LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Outside of Nyquist, the favorite, this year’s Kentucky Derby contains one of the most wide-open fields in recent memory. A number of qualified horses are in position to claim thoroughbred racing’s most historic race.
The 142nd Run for the Roses is a 1¼-mile race to be run Saturday afternoon under the iconic Twin Spires before a projected crowd of more than 160,000 at Churchill Downs. The race is restricted to 3-year-old thoroughbreds and not a single one of the 20 Derby contenders has ever raced at this distance.
The first jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown will be carried by NBC in a three-hour telecast from 4 to 7 p.m. Post time for the Derby is 6:34 p.m.
Nyquist (3-1), the morning line favorite and last year’s 2-year-old champion, comes into the Derby on a seven-race win streak for Reddam Racing LLC. Owner Paul Reddam, a Canadian-born hockey fan from Windsor, Ont., named the colt after Gustav Nyquist of the Detroit Red Wings.
The same connections that won the 2012 edition of the race with I’ll Have Another will try to add a second Derby to their resume. Trainer Doug O’Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez return to the Derby scene with experience that can only be gained in winning racing’s most difficult race and enduring the distractions and hoopla that surrounds the Derby.
“I think the team is a tad more optimistic this year and it’s hard to say that because I’ll Have Another won the Derby and the Preakness, so we’d be so blessed if he were as good as I’ll Have Another,” said O’Neill. “He’s shown to this point that he’s a great horse and a lot of great potential ahead for him.”
He’s trained him differently and he comes into the race with only two preps, one being a sprint race, under his belt since winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland last October. I’ll Have Another never made it to the gate in New York to complete the Triple Crown, and one wonders if it was the difficult campaign he encountered that led to his scratch prior to the Belmont Stakes. O’Neill thinks he has a special horse and is likely the only horse in the field that could pull off a Triple Crown attempt.
The competition certainly respects the 2-year-old champ, based on visits to the Churchill backside over the past two days. The major question that lingers for the son of Uncle Mo is whether he can sustain the mile-and-a-quarter distance.
Louisville native and trainer Dale Romans, who will enter Brody’s Cause (12-1) respects Nyquist, but thinks he can be beat. “I think he deserves all the respect in the world; he’s the undefeated 2-year-old champion,” said Romans. “Seattle Slew is the last one to come in here that way. I think the rest of us can definitely run with him, and the mile-and-a-quarter may be the equalizer.”
Chad Brown, who has 10 percent of the Derby field with Shagaf (15-1) and My Man Sam (15-1) agreed with Romans. “The horse is undefeated, he hasn’t done anything wrong. I know he still has some questions to answer about the distance, but all of them do. He’s the horse to beat and he deserves that title right now,” said Brown.
The favorite has repelled some of the more formidable runners in this race in Exaggerator and Mohaymen, a sign that he won’t have any issues dealing with a duel down the lane in the late going. Mohaymen (10-1), a $2.2-million purchase, was undefeated until running into Nyquist in the Florida Derby, albeit on an off track.
Romans was bullish on Brody’s Cause in his office on Thursday morning. The Blue Grass winner and third-place finisher behind Nyquist in the Juvenile will have Luis Saez in the irons on the son of Giant’s Causeway.
“He likes the racetrack. He’s bred to go a mile-and-a-quarter and he’s beaten a 14-horse field,” said Romans. “There are 20 horses in the race and a lot of horses get in trouble. The horses that can accelerate through the holes quickly don’t seem to get in trouble. He’s an accelerating closer.”
One prep race in recent years that has produced horses that have generated solid Derby results is the Arkansas Derby. Not only did American Pharoah emerge from Oaklawn Park, but horses like Bodemeister, Afleet Alex and Curlin came out of the Arkansas preps to run big in the classics. This year has two and possibly three horses that could hit the board coming from Oaklawn.
One of those is a maturing colt named Creator (10-1), one of three sons of Tapit in the Derby. The gray son of Giant’s Causeway has been moving forward this spring. He won the Arkansas Derby in come-from-behind fashion for trainer Steve Asmussen, a 2016 inductee to the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame.
“I do think that you get a lot of horses that run their race out of the Arkansas Derby in the Kentucky Derby through history,” Asmussen said. “And I did like his focus, and I thought that the trip Ricardo (Santana Jr.) gave him in the Arkansas Derby translates very well to a crowded race of the (Kentucky) Derby.”
Asmussen will also saddle Louisiana Derby winner Gun Runner (10-1), who I will be using around my top four selections. The trainer is hoping for a dead heat between his two runners. “I don’t want one to beat the other,” he said. “That’s how good I feel about it.”
The horse that closed late behind Creator for second place in the Arkansas Derby also will be coming late on Saturday and if he can avoid traffic issues has a great chance to hit the board or complete the superfecta. Suddenbreakingnews (20-1), a gelding, has a tremendous turn of foot and should relish the additional furlong the Derby provides, but he’ll need some pace to run into.
Trainer Donnie Von Hemel returns to the Derby for the first time in 27 years to train the son of Mineshaft, out of an Afleet Alex mare. “I think he’ll run the mile and a quarter. I’m very happy with the way he’s trained. In the two-hole, we’ll certainly save ground in the first turn and be looking for a spot to run in the second one. If there’s some pace in the race, that will certainly help us,” said Von Hemel.
The pace scenario is likely to have Danzing Candy (15-1) trying to make the lead from post No. 20 early. Only Big Brown (2008) has won from that post and if he’s loose on the lead with slow to moderate fractions, he could steal the race. Look for Nyquist, Outwork and Mohaymen to be stalking the leaders early. With as many as 8-10 closing types in the race, a moderate pace will favor a horse like Nyquist.
The keys to the race will be, as always, who will avoid the bumping and traffic at the start of the race and elude being caught wide on the clubhouse turn. The favorite has won the last three Runs for the Roses (Orb, California Chrome and American Pharoah) and we’re leaning on Nyquist’s impressive resume to date to carry him into the winner’s circle this afternoon.
Post Time Outlook: 1 - Nyquist; 2 – Brody’s Cause; 3 - Creator; and 4 – Suddenbreakingnews.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters. Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.