LOUISVILLE, Ky. - I did not like Nyquist at all in the Breeders' Cup last October. When the colt was seventh early and very wide, way out of his comfort zone, I forgot about him, silently congratulating myself for being so perceptive. When Nyquist rallied past half the field to win, I was perplexed. When the speed figure came up slow, I rationalized that he beat a bad field.
When 2016 began, I was certain that more than a few of the 3-year-olds would quickly catch and pass Nyquist because the historically slow 2-year-old champion had already peaked. I was looking to bet against him.
Then, he dueled for the lead in his 3-year-old debut on Feb. 15, held off a strong charge from the eventual dominating Santa Anita Derby winner and got the best speed figure of his career.
After that, Nyquist left his Southern California base to take on unbeaten Mohaymen at Gulfstream Park where Mohaymen had won two major stakes. Nyquist ran away from Mohaymen at the top of the stretch and won easily.
When you are wrong, you are wrong. I was wrong about Nyquist. Not only did none of his contemporaries pass the champ; the champ got better. That he also happens to be running against a really weak bunch of 3-year-olds has put me firmly in the Nyquist camp for Saturday's Kentucky Derby.
There are no horses even close to the ability of American Pharoah or California Chrome in this Derby. And that would include Nyquist.
But Nyquist does not need to beat American Pharoah or California Chrome. The unbeaten 7-for-7 Nyquist just needs to beat the other 19 horses in the two starting gates. Each of them has way more questions to answer than Nyquist.
If Nyquist had the kind of speed figures Chrome and Pharoah had coming into the Derby, I would pronounce him a lock and bet with the same kind of confidence I had in Chrome in 2014. He does not have those numbers so I can't be as confident. The best way to describe the situation is that Nyquist is the most likely winner, but he is not so far ahead of some others that one of them could not beat him.
If the race is run like I expect, there is a chance it could really be spread out from first to last on the backstretch. There are just three horses with quality early speed - Danzing Candy, Outwork and Nyquist. Thus, the favorite should be in early position to make this into at most a five-horse race instead of a 20-horse race. When the traffic is behind, there is no traffic.
Horses coming from way back won three of the final major final preps - Creator in the Arkansas Derby, Brody's Cause in the Blue Grass and Exaggerator in the Santa Anita Derby. Creator and Exaggerator got great setups with a very hot pace while Brody's Cause won on a track where closers won everything.
The race shape of this Derby does not look at all like those preps. I think this Derby could look like last year's when the first three horses early changed places, but took the top three spots in the end.
I don't think Danzing Candy is going to win, but I do think he has a chance if he clears the field and the other riders ignore him because he collapsed in the Santa Anita Derby. If the pace is more rational, Danzing Candy could go all the way. Thus, I will be getting a few Danzing Candy-Nyquist exacta tickets.
I will get a lot more tickets with Nyquist on top. I can see the champion getting similar trips to Chrome and Pharoah, just off the pace, take the lead in the stretch, win.
Bob Baffert is pretty easy to read. Last year, he was raving about American Pharoah and Dortmund all Derby week. They ran 1-3. He is not touting Mor Spirit like that, but I have enough faith in the trainer's ability to get horses to win the Derby that I will be using Mor Spirit on some of my tickets.
No horse in the field has improved in the final months as much as Creator. It took the horse six tries to win a race. After that, he was third in the Rebel and won the Arkansas Derby.
Outwork has gotten the most raves from the clockers since he arrived at Churchill Downs. None of these Derby horses, however, has gotten the raves of Pharoah last year, Street Sense in 2007, Barbaro in 2006 or Smarty Jones in 2004. By Derby Day, those horses had become rather obvious.
If you don't like conventional methods, you could go with one of the Pennsylvania breds, Mor Spirit or Tom's Ready. It was 1992 when Lil E. Tee became the first Pa. bred to win the Derby. It was 12 years later when Smarty Jones became the second. It is now 12 years later again.
If you are into sires, two horses have 30 percent of the field. America's top stallion Tapit has Creator, Lani and Mohaymen. Uncle Mo, with his first crop of 3-year-olds, has Mo Tom, Outwork and Nyquist.
I did not like Nyquist for the longest time. Now, dealing in changed reality, I have no reason not to like Nyquist. If this was the third race at Parx with these kinds of past performances, everybody would like Nyquist. But this is the Derby, a race that gets analyzed and overanalyzed, everybody looking for hidden angles. I went with what I see and I see Nyquist.