02/12/2016 2:46PM

Hovdey: Nyquist takes old-school road to the Derby


It is okay for the good people at Churchill Downs to tell their Kentucky Derby patrons where to sit, where to stand, what to drink, and what to sing. I’ve got no problem with Derby Day restrictions on umbrellas, coolers, laptops, Bowie knives, hibachis, fireworks, and selfie sticks. Or any kind of stick, for that matter.

What is dead wrong about the Kentucky Derby is the way the keepers of the flame are telling horse owners and trainers how to own and train their horses.

Young 3-year-olds are spent very carefully in the lead-up to a potential Derby start. Each start must be weighed against its impact not only on condition and maturity but also against the artificial metric of the Derby points system. And in the prevailing atmosphere of two or three pre-Derby starts, it sometimes becomes necessary for owners and trainers to compromise training and racing in order to accumulate Derby points.

The Derby points system also renders traditional 3-year-old events little more than client states of the Big D in Louisville. Where once it was considered an accomplishment of note to win the Arkansas Derby, the Wood Memorial, or the Blue Grass Stakes, now those winners are judged by what they go on to do in the Kentucky Derby.

As a result, the late-winter and early-springtime calendar is littered with a cookie-cutter array of Derby prelims, each of them billed foremost in terms of the Derby points available. All other races for the division are marginalized, including a race like the San Vicente Stakes, run since 1937 for 3-year-olds and won that year by Merry Maker, who tried but failed to beat War Admiral in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. He was not alone.

The seven-furlong San Vicente currently carries a $200,000 purse and a Grade 2 rating. But it isn’t worth a nickel toward making the Kentucky Derby field, which makes it all the more amazing that it is still on a Santa Anita stakes schedule that has abandoned such historic events as the Strub Stakes, the San Fernando Stakes, the El Encino Stakes, and the Santa Barbara Handicap. Beyond the winning connections and happily invested horseplayers, it has been years since anyone has truly cared who wears the San Vicente crown.

Until now.

Monday’s 75th running of the San Vicente has attracted Paul Reddam’s undefeated Nyquist, the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and Eclipse Award champion. This is a big deal, with echoes from a rich past that includes such San Vicente winners as Silver Charm, Majestic Prince, Lucky Debonair, and Swaps, as well as Hill Gail, who won it when the distance was six furlongs.

They all went on to win the Kentucky Derby, but so did Bold Forbes, Tomy Lee, and Determine after finishing second or third in the San Vicente, while Secretariat, Spectacular Bid, Alydar, Seattle Slew, Easy Goer, Holy Bull, Snow Chief, and Swale all began their 3-year-old campaigns with seven-furlong races in New York or Florida. Affirmed’s first race in 1978 was at 6 1/2 furlongs.

It is into this mojo that Reddam, trainer Doug O’Neill, and jockey Mario Gutierrez are trying to tap, and so they are taking advantage of a minor revision in the Derby points system to do what they feel is best for Nyquist.

“We have the luxury of already having 30 Derby points,” Reddam pointed out. “So, we said, ‘Okay, if you want to get to the Derby in the best possible shape, what would you do?’ The San Vicente fit with that thinking.”

It has been only four years since Reddam, O’Neill, and Gutierrez were carried through the Triple Crown gantlet by I’ll Have Another, who won the 2012 Derby and Preakness before missing the Belmont due to a soft-tissue injury.

“The plan for Nyquist is a little bit colored by the I’ll Have Another experience, and the horse being lame the day before the Belmont, and understanding that if you’re lucky enough to get that far, you want to have the freshest horse possible,” Reddam said. “So, to me, Monday’s race isn’t really a Derby prep. It’s more like a preseason game.”

Good point. Even an impressive performance by Nyquist probably will not shake the skeptics who see him as no more than an average 2-year-old champion.

“Going into the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, there wasn’t one public handicapper that I saw who picked Nyquist to win the race,” Reddam said. “And watching the race that day, 50 yards into the race, I didn’t think we had a chance, as wide as he was. But then when he started to move on the far turn, I knew he was going to win.

“He’s a funny horse – or at least he was as a 2-year-old – in that he would do only as much as he had to do,” Reddam said. “He’d make that move between the five-sixteenths pole and the three-sixteenths pole, then in the stretch, he was like, ‘Okay, I’m done.’ But when Swipe came up inside of him in the FrontRunner, he said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’

“So, it’s really hard to know just how good he is,” Reddam concluded. “I’ve read that based on his Beyers, he’s as good as he’s going to be, so we’ll see. To me, it’s always about putting your nose on the wire first. The rest of it is kind of fluff.”