LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The Kentucky Derby so often is a study in chaos, a random rodeo that rewards luck as much as talent. Not this one, because Saturday’s 142nd Derby played out almost exactly as it appeared on paper.
The only question about the undefeated favorite, Nyquist, was his ability to handle the grueling distance of 1¼ miles. He answered it with speed and guts, spurting clear under Mario Gutierrez in upper stretch and holding off fast-closing Exaggerator by 1¼ lengths before a deafening crowd of 167,227 at Churchill Downs.
“It was an amazing feeling,’’ Gutierrez said. “I knew Exaggerator was coming, but Nyquist knew he was coming, too, so I wasn’t worried.’’
As expected, speed-crazy Danzing Candy took the lead after a quarter-mile, blasting through draining fractions of 22.58 seconds for a quarter and 45.72 for a half. He folded after 6 furlongs in 1:10.40. Nyquist tracked him in second, then third, and made his move after Gun Runner led him by a head after a mile in 1:35.61. Nyquist was 2½ lengths clear of Gun Runner at the eighth pole, when surging Exaggerator was the only threat.
Kent Desormeaux had his brother Keith’s horse rolling, but he had too much to do and not enough time. With a half-mile to go, Exaggerator was 15th, and he was eighth, about nine lengths behind, after a mile. He cut more than seven lengths off his deficit but couldn’t get there. If not for traffic trouble, he might not be 0-for-4 against Nyquist.
“My horse slammed on the brakes 3½ furlongs out, ducked back to the inside and took off,’’ said Kent Desormeaux, a three-time Derby winner. “When you see the replay, it will be obvious.’’
Trainer Keith Desormeaux wasn’t so sure. “I didn’t think Exaggerator hit the brakes as much as Kent alluded to,” he said. “He burst out of the turn, and I thought we had time to catch Nyquist. We had clear running room the entire stretch, and I thought for sure we would catch him.’’
Gun Runner faded to third, 3¼ lengths behind Exaggerator and a head in front of Mohaymen, who nosed out Suddenbreakingnews for fourth. Completing the order of finish were Destin, Brody’s Cause, Mo Tom, Lani, Mor Spirit, My Man Sam, Tom’s Ready, Creator, Outwork, Danzing Candy, Trojan Nation, Oscar Nominated, Majesto, Whitmore and Shagaf.
Victor Espinoza, seeking an unprecedented third straight Derby win, never had a chance on 30-1 shot Whitmore.
Nyquist, the eighth undefeated Derby winner, is the first to be 8-for-8 since Majestic Prince in 1969. He’s the fourth consecutive winning favorite in a race in which 20 straight chalks failed from 1980-99. He’s also the fourth California-based winner in the past five Derbys, starting with I’ll Have Another in 2012. Like Nyquist, he was trained by Doug O’Neill, owned by J. Paul Reddam and ridden by Gutierrez.
Reddam named the colt after Gustav Nyquist, a forward for the Detroit Red Wings, “the team I’ve rooted for since I was 5 years old.’’ Nyquist has won on the lead, stalking the pace and coming from behind. His relentless excellence and toughness are reminiscent of the greatest Red Wing of them all, Gordie Howe.
“He’s such a special horse,’’ O’Neill said. “I can see it in his eyes on a daily basis. He’s a total professional. He knows when to rest and when to bring his ‘A’ game.’’
If you played the first four betting choices in that order, you would have hit a $173.40 trifecta for $2 and a $542.10 superfecta for $1. Not a bad return on a $3 investment. Nyquist was 2-1, Exaggerator 5-1, Gun Runner 10-1 and Mohaymen 11-1. Derby Handicapping 101 involves obsessively trying to find holes in the favorite and backing long shots with suspect credentials. All of those hope bets produced discarded tickets on Saturday.
Nyquist, a bay son of hot young sire Uncle Mo, paid $6.60 for his seventh straight graded-stakes triumph. He ran 1¼ miles on a fast track in 2:01.31 and earned $1,631,600 from a $2,391,600 purse.
“A lot of people said he couldn’t go a mile and a quarter,” Reddam said. “That made me nervous, even though I didn’t believe them. And our horse didn’t believe them, either.’’