LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The racing world wondered if there was a worthy successor to last year's Triple Crown champion American Pharoah.
The bay colt who lacks any distinctive markings won the Kentucky Derby by 1 1/4 lengths on Saturday, improving to 8-0 in his career as the fourth consecutive favourite to win the race.
Ridden by Mario Gutierrez, Nyquist ran 1 1/4 miles in 2:01.31. The 3-year-old colt became the eighth unbeaten winner in the race's 142-year history, and the first since Big Brown in 2008. He paid $6.60, $4.80 and $3.60 as the 2-1 favourite in the full field of 20 horses.
Mario Gutierrez celebrates atop Nyquist after crossing the finish line to win the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on Saturday in Louisville, Ky. (Photo: Jim Dietz/Getty Images)
"We got a beautiful trip from the start to the end,'' Gutierrez said.
Nyquist delivered a second Derby win for Gutierrez, trainer Doug O'Neill and Canadian owner J. Paul Reddam, of Windsor, Ont. The Southern California-based team was behind 2012 Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another.
"We got a beautiful trip from the start to the end.''
"This is such a special horse,'' O'Neill said. "You can see it in his eye on a daily basis and he's such a professional. Any human sport, he'd be the top-notch athlete. He's just first class.''
Nyquist enjoyed a perfect trip over the Churchill Downs dirt in front of 167,227, the second-largest crowd in Derby history. The colt broke well out of the 13th post and showed some early speed getting away from the gate. Gutierrez eased Nyquist back to let speedster Danzing Candy take the lead going into the chaotic first turn.
"His run was awesome,'' Reddam said. "Obviously, we were going to take it to 'em. I love the way that we fired out of there and he sat behind Danzing Candy. This horse, he's really something. We're just really lucky to be a part of that.''
Nyquist stayed just off the lead and Gutierrez kept him in the clear, steering him to the outside on the final turn. Nyquist and Gun Runner overtook tiring leader Danzing Candy at the top of the stretch.
Nyquist, ridden by Mario Gutierrez, leads the field to the finish line during the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on Saturday in Louisville, Ky. (Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images)
"I thought I had it for a minute,'' said Florent Geroux, aboard Gun Runner. "He started pricking his ears back and forth at the top of the stretch.''
But Gun Runner was only in front briefly before Nyquist showed a strong finishing kick. He put away his closest rival and sped to the finish line, with Exaggerator closing but never threatening after coming from well back.
Exaggerator fell to 0-4 against Nyquist, including two runner-up finishes under the brother team of trainer Keith and jockey Kent Desormeaux.
"What a horse,'' marvelled Keith Desormeaux. "I can't respect that horse enough.''
All week long, optimism had filled the air in O'Neill's barn. The humans took their cues from the horse. Nyquist settled right in, showing an obvious liking for his surroundings.
"I can't respect that horse enough.''
"You just felt there was no way you could be nervous because you just felt like you were going in the gym with Kobe Bryant,'' O'Neill said. "You just knew he was going to figure out a way to pull it out at the end and he did. Mario gets a lot of credit, too. What a ride, what a ride.''
Nyquist began Derby day with a visit from the Stanley Cup, which he playfully took a nibble at. Fitting, since he's named for Detroit Red Wings player Gustav Nyquist. Reddam is a fan of the NHL team and O'Neill was born in Michigan.
The bay colt is from the first crop of sire Uncle Mo, who never got the chance to run in the Derby after being the early favourite for the 2011 race. He was scratched the day before with a stomach illness. Uncle Mo had two other offspring in this year's race: Mo Tom and Outwork.
"Congratulations to Nyquist, he's still undefeated,'' said Kiaran McLaughlin, who trains Mohaymen. "He's a star. I don't know about the Triple Crown, but we'll have a great year.''
Exaggerator returned $5.40 and $4.20, while Gun Runner was another 3 1/4 lengths back in third and paid $6 to show.
Nyquist, ridden by Mario Gutierrez, passes the grandstands for the first time on his way to win the Kentucky Derby on Saturday in Louisville, Ky. (Photo: Jon Durr/Eclipse Sportswire via Getty Images)
Mohaymen finished fourth and Suddenbreakingnews was fifth.
Destin was sixth, followed by Brody's Cause, Mo Tom, Lani and Mor Spirit, trained by Bob Baffert, who guided American Pharoah last year. My Man Sam was 11th, followed by Tom's Ready, Creator, Outwork, Danzing Candy, Trojan Nation, Oscar Nominated, Majesto and Whitmore. Shagaf didn't finish.
American Pharoah became racing's first Triple Crown champion in 37 years. The sport has had only one pair of back-to-back Triple Crown winners, Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978.
Now Nyquist is the only horse in position to replicate the feat.