Nyquist favored in a Kentucky Derby filled with uncertainty

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Nyquist is named for someone who plays in the cold, but it seems that racing has been relatively lukewarm to Nyquist.

Despite a perfect record of seven wins in seven starts, he heads into the 142nd Kentucky Derby on Saturday at Churchill Downs as the acknowledged favorite but with plenty of others lining up to try to beat him, notably the owners and trainers of 21 other horses entered in the race and the many bettors who are likely to find appeal in many of the 19 who will run against Nyquist.

Nyquist, named for the hockey player Gustav Nyquist, has been favored in four of his seven starts, so to say he lacks respect would be hyperbole. Yet he was not favored in his two biggest victories -- the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Florida Derby. And there has been a widespread perception that the Derby's 1-1/4 miles might be beyond his range.

Nyquist is the 3-1 favorite on the morning line set by Mike Battaglia of Churchill Downs, and he's the 7-2 favorite on the line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper. Both have Exaggerator the distant second choice at 8-1. Of the 25 DRF selectors, eight picked Nyquist -- which would make him about 2-1 if those 25 all bet equally into a closed pool. The other 17 cast their lot elsewhere.

On speed figures, Nyquist does not stand out. His career-best Beyer Speed Figure is a 101, earned sprinting in the San Vicente Stakes. His best two-turn figure, a 94 earned in the Florida Derby, is no better than many others in here -- of his 19 rivals, nine have run at least that fast in a two-turn race. But all he does is win. Nyquist is the only undefeated horse in this field, and he is the first undefeated Derby contender who also was the champion of his division at age 2 since Seattle Slew in 1977.

"Everyone has to be careful to call this a wide-open race," cautioned trainer Todd Pletcher, who sends out Destin and Outwork. "In fairness to Nyquist, he's undefeated, taken his show on the road, and won at multiple distances. He deserves more respect and credit than he's getting. Based on what I've seen, he's still a little underrated."

Bob Baffert, who sends out Santa Anita Derby runner-up Mor Spirit, said Nyquist "should be the favorite."

"He's the most accomplished horse in the race," Baffert said.

Nyquist's trainer, Doug O'Neill, is seemingly quite Zen over how Nyquist is perceived.

"That's the beauty of all sports, to knock the favorite, whether it's a team or a horse on a roll," O'Neill said. "A lot of these horses, you're splittin' hairs on talent."

Nyquist will try to give the team of O'Neill, owners Paul and Zillah Reddam, and jockey Mario Gutierrez their second Derby victory this decade, following I'll Have Another in 2012.

Baffert won the Derby for the fourth time last year with American Pharoah, who went on to sweep the Triple Crown. He is realistic about his chances this year. After Mor Spirit's final work on Monday, he said he felt confident he could "hit the board."

Pletcher is the only other trainer in the race with a Derby victory. Destin comes off a win eight weeks ago in the Tampa Bay Derby. Outwork captured the Wood Memorial. Pletcher is one of three trainers, along with Steve Asmussen and Chad Brown, who have two runners in this race.

Asmussen has the late-running Creator, the winner of the Arkansas Derby, and Gun Runner, the winner of the Louisiana Derby. Less than two weeks ago, Asmussen was voted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, and in the past two months, his wife, Julie, was pronounced cancer-free by doctors after extensive treatment for neck and throat cancer first diagnosed in September.

Brown sends out My Man Sam, the Blue Grass Stakes runner-up, and Shagaf, seeking to rebound from his first career defeat in the Wood Memorial.

Shagaf is one of two entrants owned by Shadwell Stables, which also has Mohaymen, who lost for the first time last time out in the Florida Derby. For the first three months of the year, Mohaymen was considered no worse than the second choice for the Derby and was ranked by many over Nyquist. If he gets back to that form, his win mutuel will look like a gift.

Tom Benson, the owner of the NFL's New Orleans Saints and the NBA's New Orleans Pelicans, and his wife, Gayle, also have two entrants -- Louisiana Derby runner-up Tom's Ready and Mo Tom, who had a nightmarish trip in the Louisiana Derby and figures to get significant play from trip handicappers.

Whitmore, third last time out in the Arkansas Derby, will try to give jockey Victor Espinoza an unprecedented third straight Derby win, following California Chrome in 2014 and American Pharoah.

Exaggerator, the Santa Anita Derby winner, teams up brothers Kent (jockey) and Keith (trainer) Desormeaux. Kent has won the Derby three times. This is Keith's first Derby starter.

Dale Romans, born in Louisville and practically raised at Churchill Downs, tries to capture the race he's long dreamed of winning with Brody's Cause, the winner of the Blue Grass.

Danzing Candy, the likely speed of the race, will motor out of stall 20 and try to repeat his front-running victory in the San Felipe Stakes.

Suddenbreakingnews, the Arkansas Derby runner-up, will try to give jockey Luis Quinonez, 49, a Derby win in his first Derby mount.

Majesto, the Florida Derby runner-up, is the first Derby starter for trainer Gustavo Delgado, who two years after arriving in the United States after an accomplished career in his native Venezuela has become a force in south Florida.

Oscar Nominated, the Spiral Stakes winner, will try to get back some of the $200,000 supplementary fee owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey had to put up to run, being as he wasn't originally nominated to the Derby.

Trojan Nation, the Wood Memorial runner-up, is trying to win the first race of his career. No maiden has won the Derby since Brokers Tip in 1933.

Lani, the winner of the United Arab Emirates Derby, will try to become the first Japanese-raced horse to win the Derby. He needs to be watched before the race, for he has been an absolute menace going to and from the track, often displaying his studdish qualities and hollering at any horse near him. Just seeing him walk over from the stable area -- passing bourbon-fueled fans on the clubhouse turn -- could be an adventure.

The walkover "looks like one of those Trump rallies; it's crazy," Baffert said.

Both Laoban and Cherry Wine, relegated to the also-eligible list because they had the fewest points of the 22 entered, can run only if there are scratches from the 20-horse main body of the race by 9 a.m. Eastern Friday.

If 20 start, the purse will be $2,391,600, and the winner will get $1,631,600.

The Derby is the 12th race on a 14-race card, with first post scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Eastern and the last race for 8:05 p.m., more than 9-1/2 hours later. Post time for the Derby is listed as 6:34 p.m.

There are six other graded stakes races preceding the Derby, and they feature some of the best horses in the world, headed by Breeders' Cup Mile winner Tepin in the Distaff Turf Mile (race 6) and Wavell Avenue, the winner of the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, in the Humana Distaff (race 8).

The National Weather Service calls for a high of 83 degrees on Saturday, with a 20 percent chance of rain.