09/21/2016 1:10PM

Nyquist ready for a title run

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Michael Amoruso
Nyquist has not started since a fourth-place finish in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.

Early this year, Nyquist was the highest-profile 3-year-old in the nation. He had won all five of his starts at 2 and been voted an Eclipse Award as North America’s top juvenile male. By spring, following victories in the San Vicente, Florida Derby, and Kentucky Derby, his record stood at a perfect 8 for 8.

But since finishing fourth in the Haskell Invitational on July 31, Nyquist has disappeared from public view as trainer Doug O’Neill stabled him in relative isolation at San Luis Rey Downs, a training center located 30 miles northwest of Del Mar in Bonsall, Calif. On Saturday, Nyquist will be front and center for the first time since the Haskell when he tops a field of 12 in the $1.25 million Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing in suburban Philadelphia.

O’Neill sent Nyquist to San Luis Rey after the Haskell, rather than stable him at Del Mar or Santa Anita, because the colt was having a growth spurt and because he thought Nyquist would benefit from the quieter atmosphere.

“He had gotten a little taller and a little light on us,” O’Neill said. “We decided he needed a tranquil setting where he could get some cardio and some exercise in but not be overwhelmed with the stress of what racetracks can sometimes do.”

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O’Neill said Nyquist was 16 hands tall in early spring but measured 16-2 recently. A hand is equal to four inches, and horses are measured from the ground to the top of their withers in the shoulder area.

“He’s grown over two inches in the matter of five, six months,” O’Neill said. “I think you’re looking at a taller, more filled out, better version, and hopefully we’ll see some positive results with him come Saturday.”

O’Neill said that around the barn, Nyquist is “manageable and comfortable in his skin, he’s not an overexcitable horse,” but that he’s competitive when training and that it is easier for exercise rider Jonny Garcia to handle him in a less-crowded environment.

“We try to choose times to take him out at Santa Anita and Del Mar when it is the most quiet, but even those times you’ve still got probably 50 other horses out there,” O’Neill said. “At San Luis Rey, on some mornings it has just been him and a few other horses on the track, and you know those competitive juices are able to kind of hit the pause button.”

O’Neill is confident that Nyquist is at his best for the Pennsylvania Derby and will be able to break his two-race losing streak – he finished third in the Preakness prior to the Haskell. Nyquist has had four one-mile workouts at San Luis Rey, a somewhat unusual pattern but one O’Neill believes suits his horse.

“My angle with him is, he’s got so much natural speed, and he’s so competitive, I think the thing he can benefit from the most is just good stamina gallops and stamina works,” he said.

Each of Nyquist’s one-mile works has been quicker than the one before. O’Neill said that was not intentional.

“We haven’t sought to make each week a little bit faster than the previous, but he’s just getting stronger, and you can tell the weight and muscle he has added since the Haskell,” O’Neill said. “You can just see it when you are looking at your stopwatch and watching him go that he’s doing it a little bit easier and a little bit faster.”

The Pennsylvania Derby is an important race for Nyquist, who is neck-and-neck with Exaggerator atop the 3-year-old male division, with Travers winner Arrogate not far behind. A win in the Pennsylvania Derby would solidify Nyquist’s ranking, but a loss would hinder his Eclipse Awards chances.

“I’d be lying if I said I think we can get beat and still be the 3-year-old champion,” O’Neill said. “But he’s telling me he’s fit and ready to go, and we’ll find out more Saturday.”