A year ago, horse racing badly needed a superstar, and American Pharoah gave it six brilliant months.
Now, they need a horse that can follow his trail.
Unlike human sports, where a star can lift their sport for a decade or more, horse racing has become a one-and-done industry. A star might run as a two-year, blaze through the Triple Crown series and be retired to a stud farm before the Fourth of July.
American Pharoah’s owners and trainer Bob Baffert gave us a little more – after his Triple Crown triumph, he returned to racing for the summer and fall seasons. Still, he finished his career as a 3-year-old, galloping into the sunset after finishing the sport’s first Grand Slam with a commanding win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Saturday, the search begins for American Pharoah’s successor, but this year’s Kentucky Derby field shows just how rare that horse was. There’s no horse at Churchill Downs that looks like a potential superstar, much less one that could duplicate AP’s record-smashing 2015.
Nyquist has the resume – he’s a perfect 7-for-7 in his career, including a win in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile – but he’s got the pedigree of a sprinter and has never topped a 94 Beyer Speed Figure (BSF) running more than a mile. His Florida Derby win was visually impressive – he led wire-to-wire over a pretty good field – but it wasn’t very fast.
(And yes, hockey fans, he is named after Gustav Nyquist of the Detroit Red Wings. Owner Paul Reddam lives in Windsor, Ontario – across the Detroit River from Joe Louis Arena – and has also named horses after Tomas Tatar and Petr Mrazek.)
Nyquist will be the favorite, but he’s not likely to wire the field on Saturday. Danzing Candy will be launched out of the No. 20 gate, and will almost certainly lead the field through a fast early pace. He did that in the San Felipe in March, beating a strong field, but flopped in the mud last month in the Santa Anita Derby.
Outwork, coming off a win in the muddy Wood Memorial, will also be close to the front in the early stages. Sadly, his pedigree is much more suited to running in the rain than it is to running 1 ¼ miles, so the most likely outcome is that he and Danzig Candy will burn each other out. Nyquist will be better off hanging behind their speed duel, something he showed he can do in the Juvenile.
Behind them will be a lot of horses who are running without any real chance – with 20 starters every year, owners can enter decent 3-year-olds just to say they had a Kentucky Derby horse.
Trojan Nation did only lose the Wood Memorial by a head to Outwork, but he’s never won a race. Suddenbreakingnews is the type of closer that needs a massive speed duel where the field collapses down the stretch, and there aren’t enough early-pace horses to make that likely. The same factor eliminates Mo Tom, My Man Sam, Whitmore, Majesto and Brody’s Cause.
Gun Runner has won four of his five races, but he’s going to need to run a lot faster to win the Derby. Oscar Nominated has never raced on dirt, while Lani has never raced outside Japan and the United Arab Emirates.
Exaggerator looked awesome in blowing away the field in the Santa Anita Derby, but that was in the slop, and he’s 0-for-3 against Nyquist. Keep him in mind if it rains, but toss him if it is dry. Tom’s Ready has no business in a Grade I stakes race, much less the Derby. Shagaf is a little better, but not much.
Mohaymen was 5-for-5 until last month’s Florida Derby, but Nyquist shook him off with ease after they battled to the top of the stretch. That’s a very bad sign, considering Nyquist is the one with stamina questions in his pedigree.
On paper, it looks like Danzig Candy and Outlook set hot early fractions, but fade at the top of the stretch. That’s when Nyquist should take over, but he’s also going to be running out of gas. Who’s left to catch him? Creator, Destin and Mor Spirit.
Creator is a very good horse, trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, but he’s probably going to be coming from too far back. Baffert won everything last year, and Mor Spirit should catch Nyquist just as they hit the finish line.
That won’t matter, though, because Todd Pletcher’s Destin will have already passed Nyquist and gone on to give the star trainer just his second Derby win in 45 tries. Yes, he hasn’t raced since winning the Tampa Bay Derby in March, and that kind of preparation doesn’t fare well historically on the first Saturday in May.
Pletcher, though, has used that strategy to win a lot of big races, and he’s got the horse to do this year at Churchill Downs.