CRAWFORD | Calm and confident, O'Neill ready to send unbeaten Nyquist to Triple Crown trail
While the horse racing world is still buzzing about the last Triple Crown winner, Doug O'Neill, trainer of unbeaten 2-year-old champion Nyquist, is coming to Churchill Downs quietly hoping he has the next one.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- In many ways, the horse racing world still is buzzing over last year's Triple Crown winner, the first for the sport in 37 years.
But quietly, without the fanfare you might expect, trainer Doug O'Neill is coming to Churchill Downs for Saturday's Kentucky Derby with the hope that he might have the next one.
His 3-year-old, Nyquist, is perfect in seven starts, was the champion 2-year-old after winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and not only hasn't been beaten, he hasn't been passed in a race.
Still, the pre-Derby buzz hasn't grown out of hand for Nyquist, and that, too, is fine with O'Neill, who is all too familiar with the demands of the spotlight, for both good reasons and bad.
His record of medication-related offenses in the sport is long and well-known. He had to miss the 2014 Breeders' Cup because of a suspension.
He also won the Kentucky Derby in 2012 with I'll Have Another, then went on to win the Preakness before scratching the colt from the Belmont the morning before the race with a tendon issue. That year, New York racing officials put all of the Belmont horses in a detention barn before the race. Speculation ran wild that it was a measure aimed at O'Neill.
Now, the same team that took I'll Have Another two-thirds of the way is back with Nyquist, a bay son out of the first crop of Uncle Mo who is named for Detroit Wed Wings player Gustav Nyquist, who plays right wing and knows nothing about the sport.
"I talked to him the other day and he asked when the tournament is," O'Neill said, smiling.
J. Paul Reddam, the colt's owner, is a former professor of philosophy who has made a fortune -- and fended off his share of controversy -- in the payday loan industry, but who also has been a leading benefactor for the sport. Mario Guttierez, his jockey, won the first Kentucky Derby he raced in, aboard I'll Have Another.
And O'Neill appears ready for another horse racing close-up. He's lost a good bit of weight, but wasn't interested in discussing how.
"It's good of you to say so," O'Neill said, before mentioning Bulletproof coffee and a couple of other Southern California-sounding things he's doing on the health front.
And he's strikingly relaxed, for all of the nerve-wracking moments that go into coaxing a favorite up to the first Saturday in May. Shortly after winning the Florida Derby, Nyquist tested with an abnormally high white blood cell count, but it turned out to be just a mild shipping infection.
On Friday afternoon, Nyquist turned in his final work before the Derby, covering a mile in 1:41, just a few seconds faster than his usual, before a crowd awaiting the start of racing at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky., where he's been stabled.
O'Neill always has been one of the nicest guys on the backside. Media criticism of him has rankled him in the past, but it doesn't show these days. He's a little less serene about criticisms of his horse -- and there have been some. Nyquist is not royally bred. His sire, Uncle Mo, is becoming one of the hot names in the industry -- having sent three offspring to the Kentucky Derby from his first crop. But he wasn't a distance specialist himself, and many wonder whether his offspring aren't better suited for shorter races.
He has never posted a speed figure of higher than 100, and his 94 in winning the Florida Derby was pedestrian, though on a slightly off track.
And O'Neill has run Nyquist only twice as a 2-year-old, and only once around two turns. Generally, horses get more seasoning than that after their juvenile campaign.
But there's a reason for the light schedule.
"The thought of only two preps before the Kentucky Derby, that was all thought as if we got lucky and won the Kentucky Derby, we'd have a horse with a lot left in his tank for the Triple Crown," O'Neil said. "But you never know. We have to get through May 7 first."
O'Neill says the excitement generated by last year's Triple Crown has created interest in the sport that he has noticed wherever he's gone. He wants to build on it.
"God, I want to be -- I want to make sure Nyquist and our whole team represents this great sport in a proper way, and so I don’t know if it’s pressure as much as it is -- I think it’s a great opportunity for all of us in the horse racing world to take advantage of what American Pharaoh and his connections did," O'Neill said. "I mean he took horse racing from the back page of the sports section, sometimes not even covered in the sports section, to the front page of the sports section. I look forward to having Nyquist be on the front of the sports section. I look forward to it being a real positive, good story for a great business that there’s a lot of great people in. I’m excited about the possibilities of us following up the great year American Pharaoh had."
O'Neill answered questions outside of his barn at Keeneland, smiling and calm. One thing that allows for such confidence is having gone through all this before. I'll Have Another was a different kind of horse, one that required more frequent hard training gallops. Nyquist is more physically and mentally mature, O'Neill said.
"You're as calm as your horse makes you," O'Neill said. "We're so optimistic about this guy. . . . You never want to tout your own horse too much. But he's 7-for-7, he hasn’t done anything wrong. He looks like he's going to be the likely favorite, so I can see why people would knock him, and I respect that. But it's hard to knock 7-for-7."
Winning the Kentucky Derby, O'Neill said, "was a life-changer. You walk a little bit more upright. You're able to make conversation with people. It's a great icebreaker."
But the biggest change is the confidence it gives a trainer heading into Churchill Downs, knowing that he has a plan that has worked in the past.
"It makes you calmer, it does," he said. "There's a lot that goes into it, but if you're lucky to go through it once, it makes your realize you don't want to change things up. A lot of times you get there and you read articles and start questioning yourself, and you think about all the people there and wonder if you should go to the paddock. But, you know, if they're nervous around a lot of people, they're going to be nervous no matter what. Having been there, helps you to not change anything up. Just know your horse and continue to do what got you there. And that is more calming to be. You still second-guess your self, but not as much. . . . But again, a great horse like Nyquist and some of these others, you could train them probably 100 different ways and they’re going to win despite you."
In the Derby, 100 things can go wrong in the 20-horse field traveling a distance none of the competitors has ever experienced. O'Neill called it the most difficult challenge in American racing. But he likes his colt's versatility.
"You have to have a clean trip and then even if you get a clean trip you’ve got to have a horse that can go a mile and a quarter no matter what time it is," he said. "It’s phenomenal to get these guys to still be running on through the lane in a race like that. . . . It is very challenging, and what I love about Nyquist’s chances is he’s won from the rail, he’s won from the 12-hole, he’s won wire-to-wire, he’s won from just off the pace. To me, he’s got enough -- Mario can call audibles as the race unfolds if it doesn’t unfold perfectly, and I think that really is a big benefit in this kind of race."
The betting favorites have won the Kentucky Derby the last three years. The last non-favorite to win the race was I'll Have Another in 2012. In a bit of a switch, O'Neill is hoping the favorites' winning streak continues. And while the sport is still talking about last year's Triple Crown, he wouldn't mind the conversation turning to a Triple Crown streak, as well.
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