The central question of the 2016 Kentucky Derby is whether Nyquist is clearly better than his 19 opponents or a vulnerable favorite in a subpar year.
The case for Nyquist is that he is unbeaten in seven starts and is already a four-time Grade 1 winner. His résumé would make him the Derby favorite in most years, and if this is indeed a season that features more mediocrity than brilliance, he could continue separating himself from this crop. In his last three starts, he has had little trouble defeating Exaggerator, Brody's Cause and Mohaymen, three of the most accomplished colts in the bunch.
The knocks are that he has yet to run a particularly fast race (his top Beyer Speed Figure going a mile or more is a moderate 94), his Florida Derby victory over two unaccomplished long shots proved little, and the pace-pressing son of Uncle Mo may have trouble with the Derby's 10th furlong.
Nyquist is the most likely winner of the race, but that doesn't mean you have to pick or bet him at 3-1. While California Chrome and American Pharoah won the last two Derbies as the favorites, they sported much bigger figures in their final Derby preps -- a 107 for California Chrome's Santa Anita Derby and a 105 for American Pharoah's Arkansas Derby, compared to Nyquist's 94 at Gulfstream.
Almost all of this year's Derby preps came up on the slow side -- the average winning Beyer was a 95.4 as opposed to a 103.8 a year ago.
This has led many contrarians to predict that virtually any long shot could light up the board and that this is a year to bet on chaos. My problem with that theory is that I think at least half the field has virtually no chance. The lineup is filled with slow horses who have been clunking up late in races that were falling apart. These horses are not suddenly going to beat a bigger and better field when there is no guarantee of a pace meltdown.
Rather than trying to choose among the chronic losers on the theory that anything could happen, it may be wiser to focus on the horses in a smaller group who have shown at least a hint of brilliance or looked something like genuine Derby contenders at some point in their careers. From that group, I can't endorse Danzing Candy or Outwork, who seem like need-the-lead types who will have trouble getting 10 furlongs. I can't take Exaggerator off a romp in the slop, Destin off an eight-week layoff, or Gun Runner and Brody's Cause off unusually slow victories.
That leaves me with five horses who will be on my pick-whatever tickets. In alphabetical order, they are Creator, Mohaymen, Mor Spirit, My Man Sam and Nyquist.
Since I have to pick one of them on top, I'll go with Mor Spirit. He was the favorite in the Santa Anita Derby but came up flat on a sloppy track and did not run his race. The time before that, he was left with too much to do after falling eight lengths behind a loose Danzing Candy early. Mor Spirit has been first or second in his seven career starts, has been favored every time, and has never been beaten by more than two lengths on a fast track. If you can overlook his final prep, he's playable and should be a decent price.
I can't put Nyquist worse than second. I acknowledge all the reservations mentioned above, but horses this dominant in their division's biggest events should not be taken lightly, especially in a year short on stars.
Mohaymen was favored against Nyquist in the spring's biggest showdown race, the Florida Derby, and I am more than willing to draw a line through his dull fourth-place finish. He turned in such an uncharacteristically poor performance that the race did not definitively prove Nyquist the better horse, and you'll get a lot better than the 4-5 Mohaymen was in Florida.
My Man Sam and Creator are my preferred closers in the closer-laden field and may have the most upside. My Man Sam has had just four starts, and while he emerges from a second-place finish to Brody's Cause in a slow Blue Grass, his two previous starts, which came over the Aqueduct inner track, earned solid figures that would put him in the mix with routine improvement. Creator has had plenty of chances but appeared to improve sharply when stretched out to 1-1/8 miles in the Arkansas Derby.
This has been a very quiet Derby season, with few dramatic developments or defections. Perhaps it's a bit of a hangover from American Pharoah's Triple Crown a year ago, with few anticipating consecutive Crowns after a 37-year gap between the last two. The race is generating little buzz outside of the racing world, and expectations for the group are generally low.
On the other hand, someone has to win, and whoever it is will look a lot better than he does right now once he is wearing that blanket of roses -- and is the only 3-year-old who can still win the Triple Crown.