Up to speed

The only real knock on Nyquist coming into Saturday’s Kentucky Derby was, well, that he is not fast. This is kind of a bummer for a racehorse. Nyquist had done all the typical Superhorse things. He was undefeated in seven races. He was two-year-old Horse of the Year. He had dominated all the top Derby contenders. These things might have gotten people excited.

“He’s undefeated, taken his show on the road and won at multiple distances,” renowned trainer Todd Pletcher warned a couple of days before the Derby. “He deserves more respect and credit than he’s getting.”

But, hey, you know: Not fast. The Beyer Speed Figures — the currency of the horse racing world — attempt, in the words of the Daily Racing Form, to offer a “numerical representation of a horse’s performance based on the final time and the inherent speed over the track which the race was won.” Nyquist’s Beyer Speed Figures were blah. He had only topped 100 once, and that is the very minimum speed for what might be considered to be a great horse. American Pharoah, just as an example, had topped 100 four times before his Kentucky Derby win and earth-shaking Triple Crown run.

Nyquist also ran a somewhat pedestrian 94 when winning the Florida Derby, the longest race he ran before Saturday. That did not bode well either.

Yes, of course, everyone admired Nyquist’s intangibles. He always shows up to race. He is, in the words of his trainer Doug O’Neill, “such a professional,” meaning that every day he goes about his work with a quiet but ruthless intensity. He was installed as the Derby favorite because, well, how could you NOT make the undefeated two-year-old champion the favorite? But there wasn’t much excitement surrounding him. He might be the best of this mediocre crop of three-year-olds, many experts said. But, you know: Not fast.

Then Nyquist ran a Kentucky Derby for the ages.

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In so many ways, Nyquist’s story is the story of sports these days. Everywhere you look, you see stars who have transcended the numbers stacked against them. Did anyone see Golden State’s Draymond Green emerging from the rummage sale that is the NBA draft’s second round and becoming a singular force, a defensive whirlwind who can guard all five positions and an offensive wizard who specializes in triple-doubles? Did anyone see Jordan Spieth, a young golfer who does not drive the ball particularly far or straight, putting himself in position to win five consecutive major championships? Did anyone see the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta, after five frustrating and ultimately disappointing seasons, emerging into one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball?

How good was Nyquist on Saturday? Everyone knew coming in that the speedy Danzing Candy would set a brisk pace. But no one knew that he would run that first half-mile in 45.72 seconds, the ninth-fastest half-mile fraction in Kentucky Derby history. As announcer Larry Collmus said, he was “setting a solid pace which could help these late closers here.”

Yes, this sort of breakneck pace was supposed to play precisely to Nyquist’s weaknesses. He was running up front because this is his style, the style with which jockey Mario Gutierrez has always ridden him. And, even though Gutierrez was holding Nyquist back a bit — “I wasn’t going to battle him,” he would say — the expectation still might have been for Nyquist to tire down the stretch of his first mile-and-a-quarter race and get passed by one of the great finishers, like Exaggerator.

Only, Nyquist did not tire. At the quarter pole, Nyquist began to pull away. His speed was breathtaking. He built a five-length lead and all the way down the stretch, Gutierrez kept looking back to see if anyone was threatening. No one was. Exaggerator made a late charge but still finished a length-and-a-half back.

“I thought I had him,” Exaggerator jockey Kent Desormeaux said. “But Nyquist is the champion that he is.”

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Nyquist’s time of 2:01.31 is the fastest since 2003 and almost two seconds faster than American Pharoah’s last year.

So, yeah, it turns out Nyquist is plenty fast. But this is the wonder of the Kentucky Derby: You just don’t know. You take a bunch of promising young horses — 20 horses this year — and put them all in their first 1 1/4-mile race, and that is when we find out which thoroughbred can maneuver through the madness, which one has the real speed, which one can go the distance.

Now we know: Nyquist just might be special. There was one other thing dampening Nyquist’s expectations, something that you might call the American Pharoah hangover. Pharoah last year became the first thoroughbred in 37 years to win the Triple Crown. There was a thrilling singularity to American Pharoah’s performance. Story after story after story had been written through the years that the Triple Crown was dead, that with the money that had come into horse racing (and, especially, into breeding) and because of various technical matters involving training, no horse would ever again win the Derby, Preakness and Belmont in a five-week span.

Then Pharoah broke through, and there was this sense that we had seen a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It didn’t seem possible that another dominant horse could emerge so soon after that.

But here we are: Nyquist’s domination through the Derby surpasses that of Pharoah. He became the first undefeated two-year-old of the year to win the Kentucky Derby since Seattle Slew back in 1977. He is likely to be a heavy favorite at the Preakness, which is a shorter race and thus gives the closers less time to catch him. Then, should Nyquist win in Baltimore, there will be the question of the Belmont, the longest of the three races.

But Nyquist keeps answering every question no matter how many people underestimate him.

“He’s such a special horse,” O’Neill said. “You can see it in his eye on a daily basis. … You felt like you were going to the gym with Kobe Bryant. You just knew he was going to figure out a way to pull it out at the end. And he did.”

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