In 2015, American Pharoah rendered all other Triple Crown storylines moot.
Even before the Kentucky Derby, he stirred the hearts of wizened clockers and handicappers with the way he glided over tracks from California to Arkansas. Then he proved to be the first horse in 37 years who could handle every question the Triple Crown posed — from a rugged stretch battle at Churchill Downs to a monsoon at Pimlico to the grinding distance of the Belmont Stakes.
Finally, an eager racing world had the superhorse it had coveted since Affirmed won the last Triple Crown in 1978.
But American Pharoah is now out to stud in Versailles, Ky., and it's time to do it all over again. The 142nd Kentucky Derby is dead ahead on May 7, with undefeated Nyquist set up as the likely favorite, trying to do what American Pharoah did last spring. Behind him, the field is a bit of a muddle, with a passel of late chargers and a number of talented horses who are either lightly tested or have faltered at some point in their prep schedules.
It should make for a week of healthy debate as bettors attempt to line up their favorites and long shots. Here are five key storylines heading into the race:
Will Nyquist become the next favorite to take the Derby?
For all our talk about the drama created by a 20-horse field, the Derby has been a chalk race the last few years. Orb and California Chrome won as the favorites in 2013 and 2014, respectively, and American Pharoah repeated the feat in 2015, pursued closely by Firing Line and Dortmund, also both top contenders in the morning line.
Nyquist is unquestionably the most accomplished horse in this year's field. He's undefeated in seven races, won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile as a 2-year-old and dusted Mohaymen, perceived as the early Derby favorite, in the April 2 Florida Derby.
This California-based colt, trained by Doug O'Neill, has faced persistent questions about his physical talent. His Beyer speed figures, which relativize a horse's times to account for track conditions and the overall speeds of races, are not the best in the field. Others have questioned his pedigree to run the longer distances of the Triple Crown races.
But Nyquist possesses a trait that served California Chrome and American Pharoah well — tactical speed. This means jockey Mario Gutierrez will be able to place him wherever he chooses, likely a few paces off the lead, and make a move whenever the race dictates. Unlike many of his top rivals, Nyquist is not wedded to a fast start or a late charge. He has proven he can win in different scenarios.
Who are the top contenders to knock off Nyquist?
This is where it gets tricky, because none of the other contenders can claim an unblemished resume. This year's Derby prep season was full of twists and turns that blew holes in some cases and unexpectedly pushed less touted 3-year-olds to the fore.
Exaggerator, another California-based horse, produced the most impressive performance of the prep season in winning the April 9 Santa Anita Derby by 6 1/4 lengths. He's perhaps the most talented of the many late chargers. But there's one big catch: Exaggerator, trained by Keith Desormeaux and ridden by his brother Kent, has already lost to Nyquist three times.
American Pharoah's Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert, will be back at Churchill Downs with another solid contender in Mor Spirit. The comparisons to Pharoah end with Baffert, but Mor Spirit always gives a good effort and is another horse with the coveted tactical speed. If Nyquist falters, he could be in good position.
Creator, trained by freshly elected Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, won the talent-packed Arkansas Derby on April 16. He seems to improve with every race, which makes him dangerous. But many handicappers still prefer the horses Creator beat in Arkansas, Whitmore and Suddenbreakingnews.
Asmussen's other horse, Gun Runner, did nothing but win in Louisiana. His speed figures, however, are mediocre.
Destin, trained by Todd Pletcher, ran one of the most blistering races of the prep season in the March 12 Tampa Bay Derby. But he hasn't started since — an unusually long pre-Derby layoff even by modern standards.
You're probably sensing a pattern by now. This field is chock full of horses who are equal parts intriguing and cloaked in doubt.
Which of the many late chargers is likely to make the biggest move?
Nearly half the horses in the field, and a lot of the best ones, would prefer to come way off the lead to win the Derby. But that could be a problematic scenario with so little early speed in the field to push the pace and tire horses such as Nyquist and Mor Spirit.
Exaggerator will likely be the top betting choice among the late chargers and could fare well because he accelerates quickly when the time comes. Creator will likely be right behind him in the morning line. Still, that leaves Suddenbreakingnews, who fires exceptionally late but might be the fastest in the field over the last 1/4 mile. And Mo Tom, who might garner more buzz if he hadn't suffered through several brutal trips in his prep races. And the one-two finishers in the Blue Grass Stakes, Brody's Cause and My Man Sam.
It should make for a fascinating race, with a big pack of horses at the back to start and a thrilling last 30 seconds.
What's the best upset scenario?
Danzing Candy is far from the most-hyped horse in the race after he finished fourth in the Santa Anita Derby. In a field largely devoid of early speed, he's expected to seize the early lead at Churchill Downs. But many wonder if he can possibly hold off all the talented horses coming at him from behind.
Here's the thing: Danzing Candy has done it before. He held off both Mor Spirit and Exaggerator in the March 12 San Felipe Stakes. In that race, jockey Mike Smith managed to hold enough of the horse's speed in reserve to preserve him for the stretch run.
If Smith can do it again, setting a modest early pace from the lead, it's conceivable Danzing Candy could take the Derby wire to wire.
What about Mohaymen?
Until Nyquist stared him down in the Florida Derby, Mohaymen was the early betting favorite for the Derby.
So what to make of such a listless performance from the Kiaran McLaughlin-trained colt? Mohaymen was unbeaten and training well heading into his showdown with Nyquist. The track was in fine condition that day and he wasn't hurt. He just didn't try very hard when challenged.
Some will recall Secretariat finishing third in the Wood Memorial and hope Mohaymen's dud was an anomaly. He's training well in Kentucky, and McLaughlin swears by his talent. But it will be hard for a lot of bettors to forget how soundly Nyquist handled him.