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Having already proved doubters wrong, Nyquist out to do so again in Kentucky Derby

Nyquist is looked over in the barn area during morning training for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 06, 2016 in Louisville, Ky.
Nyquist is looked over in the barn area during morning training for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 06, 2016 in Louisville, Ky. (Logan Riely / Getty Images)

LOUISVILLE, KY. — Forget becoming the next superhorse or the successor to American Pharoah.

For the past six months, Nyquist has run against a pack of skeptics who've tried to pick apart his credentials as a mere contender for Saturday's 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby.

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His speed figures don't pop the eyes, they say. His pedigree suggests he might falter over the Derby's 1 ¼ miles.

All the horse has done in the face of those doubters is win — seven times in seven races against the best competition his 3-year-old class can muster. He has demonstrated a wide range of skills at an equally wide range of locations. And he will likely walk to the track as the Derby favorite on Saturday evening, critics or no.

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His trainer, Doug O'Neill and his owner, Paul Reddam, can tick through the questions as readily as anyone. They almost seem to relish those who tear away at Nyquist's case.

"I think people have lost a lot of money with that strategy so far, and I hope that continues," Reddam said. "Earlier on, he was picked on because, oh, his Beyer [speed figures] are so low. And I'm like, 'Wait a minute. I thought the object was to beat whoever you're running against.' … The knock on the horse is now, 'Well, we don't think he'll go 1 ¼ miles.' Of course, no one can discern that from watching him on the racetrack."

The others who sound most convinced of Nyquist's quality are those who've tried to beat him. Trainer Keith Desormeaux, who'll saddle Exaggerator as the 8-1 second choice in the morning line, scoffed at questions about the favorite's legitimacy.

"He's formidable," said Desormeaux, whose horse has lost to Nyquist three times. "I love the way he moves. He looks like he's in good flesh. … His energy looks good. But what he's got going in my mind is his efficiency of motion. He's got that. I've seen it in races, but most of all, I've seen it in training. That's what bothers me the most."

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Desormeaux's brother, Kent, has ridden against Nyquist five times and said, "My read is I'm going to need some help [to beat him]. He's to be reckoned with. Exaggerator's going to have to step it up."

NBC racing analyst Randy Moss said Nyquist might lack the blinding talent of American Pharoah, who won the first Triple Crown in 37 years in 2015.

"But he's a deserving, clear-cut favorite," Moss said. "It's got a lot to do with not just his winning habit but his versatility. He can literally be placed anywhere, and that's a big advantage."

O'Neill, Reddam and jockey Mario Gutierrez have been here before.

They won the 2012 Derby and Preakness with I'll Have Another and took him to Belmont Park as a 4-5 favorite to win the Triple Crown. Then they made the wrong kind of history when they had to scratch the horse on Friday morning because of an inflamed tendon.

Reddam, a Canadian businessman who specializes in high-interest loans, remembers all too well the two phone calls he shared with O'Neill that June morning.

The first came early. "I think he just rapped it, banged it in the stall," the trainer told him. "It shouldn't be any big deal, but I'll call you in a couple hours."

The next call came as Reddam shared breakfast with family members. "No bueno," O'Neill said simply, delivering the awful news in Spanish.

That crushing bit of luck came as O'Neill faced a wave of criticism for medication violations at various tracks. It was enough to splinter a lot of trainer-owner teams.

"I thought the group would never recover from that, coming that close," Reddam said. "People said to me that day, 'Oh, you'll get back there again.' And I thought, 'That's a nice sentiment to say, but you're really out to lunch if you think we're ever going to be 4-to-5 to win the Triple Crown again. That's just not going to happen.'"

But they stayed loyal to one another, leaning on friends and choosing to celebrate what I'll Have Another had done rather than dwelling on what he had not.

"I was very surprised about how we all handled it," Reddam said. "We had a team luncheon a month later, and it was a celebration, not a wake."

Less than three years later, they bought Nyquist.

It was O'Neill's brother, Dennis, who picked him out of the pack at the Fasig-Tipton sale where Reddam purchased him for $400,000. In one of the twists peculiar to racing, Reddam sold fellow Derby contender Mor Spirit on the same day for a tidy $555,000 profit.

The O'Neills loved what they saw from the horse, named after Detroit Red Wings right winger Gustav Nyquist, in early training. So they scheduled him for his first race — five furlongs at Santa Anita Park on June 15, 2015.

Reddam recalled with a chuckle how Dennis O'Neill tried to talk him out of betting on Nyquist that day. He said he'd be happy with a third- or fourth-place finish. Reddam looked at him like he was nuts and laid his money down.

Nyquist rewarded his faith, hanging tough to win by a head against a more experienced competitor.

"You could see there was something special about this horse," Reddam said. "He just refused to lose, and we've seen that behavior carry through."

Nyquist won four more races, including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, as a 2-year-old. Then he beat Exaggerator in the Feb. 15 San Vicente Stakes and positively whipped one-time Derby favorite Mohaymen in the April 2 Florida Derby.

After the San Vicente, Keith Desormeaux went out of his way to compliment Nyquist's connections.

"He's very competitive, so for him to say after the race, 'I can't believe what your horse just did there,' it took a lot for him to say it, and it meant a lot to us to hear it from him," Doug O'Neill said.

Churchill Downs is a land of wide-eyed optimists during Derby week. Even still, it was hard to find a more blissful figure than O'Neill during the run-up to Saturday's main event.

Whenever he faced questions about his past as a face of the sport's doping troubles, the mellow-tongued Californian insisted that era is well behind him. He said he has taken a more direct hand in monitoring the health of each of his horses, and that approach has resulted in a clean resume in recent years.

"Instead of focusing on stuff way back then that I didn't do, I like focusing on stuff that's going on right now," he said. "We've got a great team. We've got weekly meetings where we all get together, my assistants and I, and talk about each horse and what's going on. What's in their best interest? … It's been a real godsend for Nyquist to come around and be able to showcase all of that."

The horse has made it easy for his connections. Already, they've run him in Grade 1 stakes on four different tracks in three different states. With each trip, he maintained his weight and his calm, essential traits in a horse with Triple Crown aspirations.

It's too early to say if Nyquist possesses the star quality of American Pharoah, who bewitched venerable horsemen with his floating stride and charmed fans with his friendly, attention-seeking demeanor. But O'Neill sees some of those qualities.

"I think there's potential for that," he said. "He's a horse who really seems to enjoy it and thrive on it. ... This is really the first experience he's had with so many people around the wash rack and just daily things you wouldn't expect. He's handled it like a total gentleman, a total pro."

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Reddam has lost at the Derby enough to know he should not get ahead of himself. He recalled his first try — Ten Most Wanted in 2003. At the barn before the race that day, trainer Wally Dollase told him, "An hour and a half from now, we'll have won the Kentucky Derby. "

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Then the gates opened and one horse crunched Ten Most Wanted from the outside, another from the inside. He never recovered. Reddam stood there drenched in sweat as revelers flocked to the winner, Funny Cide. "That wasn't fair," he thought. "Can't we just do it again?"

But the lesson was essential — a good horse is only the start of the story when it comes to winning at Churchill Downs. Nonetheless, Reddam has allowed himself to dream bigger than usual with Nyquist.

"I'd be lying if I stood here and said I wouldn't be horribly disappointed if we lost," he said outside the Derby favorite's stall Thursday. "For us, being the favorite, there's only two outcomes. There's winning and there's losing. Of course if you set yourself up for that, you can really be crushed."

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