09/21/2016 12:00PM

Hovdey: Nyquist back from his time off the grid

Barbara D. Livingston
Nyquist comes off two high-profile losses, in the Preakness and Haskell, after winning his first eight starts.

Nyquist is in the news again. Remember him? The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner, 2-year-old male champion, and undefeated hero of the Kentucky freakin’ Derby? All it took was two high-profile losses for him to be relegated to yesterday’s fishwrap, a one-hit wonder. This year’s Super Saver. Orb in West Coast drag.

Is this a tough room or what?

In the most recent NTRA Top Thoroughbred poll – comprised of 39 votes from an assortment of industry pundits – Nyquist was still clinging to the No. 10 spot, compared to No. 6 for fellow 3-year-old Arrogate. His greatest sin, despite a record of 8 for 10, seems to be that he has not lived up to the standard set by American Pharoah. Good luck with that.

Paul Reddam’s champ has been out of sight and nearly everyone’s mind since finishing fourth in the Haskell. He had been training at Del Mar, but Doug O’Neill thought a change of scenery would help the cause – there was something about a growth spurt – so he dispatched Nyquist to San Luis Rey Downs, a Southern California training center so out of the way that GPS has yet to find it on the map.

“No kidding,” said Kevin Havell, manager of San Luis Rey Downs. “GPS takes you way over there to Lilac Road. We get delivery guys calling us all the time asking, ‘Where are you?’ ”

With such technological anonymity comes peace of mind. Horses loll around at San Luis Rey like box turtles. The only thing they look forward to more than feed time is a nap. Sure, they put in the hard work of racehorses in the morning – Peter Miller wins training titles out of San Luis Rey – but when the afternoon comes and the breeze from the Pacific crests the surrounding hills, it is easy to forget the hubbub of a racetrack backstretch full of 1,500 anxious animals and the attendant human traffic.

“The vacation is almost over,” said Jonny Garcia on Monday morning, not long after giving Nyquist a solid jog around San Luis Rey’s dirt mile.

Garcia has been riding Nyquist since the colt arrived at Santa Anita fresh from a 2-year-old sale. He has followed him to Keeneland, Gulfstream Park, Churchill Downs, Pimlico, and Monmouth Park, and now they are on the road again to Parx, near Philadelphia, for the $1.25 million Pennsylvania Derby on Saturday.

At Parx, Nyquist will face his old pal Exaggerator, who beat him on sloppy tracks in both the Preakness and the Haskell Invitational. The forecast for Saturday calls for neither rain nor the presence of Arrogate, the runaway winner of the Travers, so the two classic winners should have the headlines to themselves.

Exaggerator still needs to prove he can win a big one on a dry track, while Nyquist must quell any notions that the division has left him behind as the champion of the first five months of the year. This usually gets you nothing.

In his favor, Nyquist has been working like he means it at San Luis Rey, with a progressively faster series of miles over the deepish, sandy loam. Nyquist’s most recent 1:38.20 under Garcia last weekend was as good as a horse should work.

“I know he’s grown, and he feels stronger,” Garcia said. “His stride is bigger. I like to start him out relaxed in his work, then pick it up after about three-eighths and finish steady.”

When he is at his best, that is exactly how Nyquist runs his races. In his last two starts – not coincidentally his only two losses – he has been asked to press a fast pace. This is not his style, and at the same time, there is no reason to believe that a false pace would ever compromise his chances. He is the ultimate stalker.

Garcia, 30, has been with the O’Neill stable for nine years. Clearly, the trainer trusts him with the best. Garcia’s headline horses prior to Nyquist were Derby-Preakness winner I’ll Have Another and two-time Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Goldencents.

When Garcia says that Nyquist “has never changed,” he is talking about a relatively mellow equine personality that was transparent from the start. Even his quirks have persisted.

“Yes, look at the back wall,” Garcia said, and sure enough, there were the telltale Nyquist teeth marks that have appeared in every stall he’s ever occupied.

But even the easygoing have their limits. O’Neill thought a few sessions in the San Luis Rey equine swimming pool would do Nyquist a world of good, as it has for any number of horses who trend a little sour on the daily grind.

“First time in, he was great,” said San Luis Rey’s Havell. “Usually, when that happens, they’re golden. But when he went back in, he froze. It was clear he wanted out, so we certainly don’t push them into having a bad experience. That was the end of the pool for him.”

What began as a two-week aqua-therapy break turned into six weeks of training-center bliss for Nyquist. And if he’s not ready to pick up where he left off after winning the Kentucky Derby, he’s been fooling a lot of people. Garcia doesn’t think so.

“We leave here Wednesday, gallop there Thursday and Friday, win on Saturday, and come home to Santa Anita on Sunday,” he said with a smile. “Then back to work on Monday.”