Nyquist back on track for Haskell

Nyquist rests in barn at Monmouth Park on Thursday in preparation for Sunday's Haskell Invitational.

ON THE first Saturday in May, Nyquist, Exaggerator and Gun Runner ran 1-2-3 in the Kentucky Derby. On the last Sunday of July, those three and a horse capable of giving Bob Baffert his ninth Haskell Invitational win will convene at Monmouth Park for the $1 million race, a signature event of the second half of the horse racing season, now in full stride.

When last seen in a race, Nyquist was finishing third in the slop in the Preakness at Pimlico, losing for the first time after eight wins at five different tracks. Nyquist may have lost a race, but, really, the colt lost nothing else that day. The 2015 2-year-old champion was beaten by circumstance as much as the other horses.

Trainer Doug O'Neill had every intention of bringing the horse back in 3 weeks for the Belmont Stakes, but Nyquist got sick after the race, stayed at Pimlico for a while, missed considerable training time and is just now, his trainer thinks, getting back to the form that had the colt dominating the Derby.

"We're ready to roll," O'Neill said on Monday from his Del Mar, Calif. base.

It just took some time to get over the illness. The colt spiked a temperature. Some days, he would eat well, others not so well, all signs of a horse in some discomfort.

"Back-to-back races in 2 weeks where he gave 100 percent, it kind of beat him up a little bit," O'Neill said.

Exaggerator's trainer Keith Desormeaux had been considering running his Preakness winner in Saturday's Jim Dandy at Saratoga or not at all this week, so dissatisfied was he with the colt's two recent workouts after a dismal performance in the Belmont Stakes. He changed his mind Wednesday because he likes the potential pace scenario and the bigger purse on the North Jersey shore.

Gun Runner was part of that Derby pace and kept Nyquist company around the far turn before tiring in the stretch. This is a talented, improving, dangerous horse.

So is American Freedom. I got a call during the Derby Day card from a friend at home who shall remain nameless to protect him from harassment. He told me that Baffert had told him American Freedom was the best 3-year-old on the grounds at Churchill Downs and after he dominated the Pat Day Mile that day, he was going to win the Preakness in 2 weeks. American Freedom ran sixth and did not run in the Preakness. The colt, however, did run on the Preakness Day card, winning the Sir Barton Stakes. He went on to win the July 1 Iowa Derby.

Monmouth Park is a long way from Prairie Meadows and this field is a lot stronger than the one he faced there, but Baffert is rarely wrong about his good horses. American Freedom was compromised in Kentucky by a terrible start. He has been very fast and very impressive in his other three starts, all wins.

Like Gun Runner and American Freedom, Nyquist is always prominent early in his races. Desormeaux is hoping for a Preakness repeat when Nyquist got caught battling through the fastest opening fraction in Preakness history and was never able to relax.

"I was in my own little world," O'Neill said of the Preakness. "I don't think I realized how demanding that track was . . . It was kind of that old-school mud that none of us see any more. Here I am pulling a Donald Trump in the paddock telling (jockey) Mario (Gutierrez) to win the first turn. It was really poor prerace planning, but it was how confident I felt and I just really wanted to see Nyquist with a trouble-free trip and I thought we'd get it done."

O'Neill's plan was fine. It could have gone just like the Derby, with a speed horse in front and Nyquist comfortably waiting to pounce. What he did not anticipate was what would have been very difficult to anticipate - a no-hope speed horse to his outside being ridden like the wire was on the first turn. That horse forced Nyquist to go, and off he went dueling through fractions that were just too fast. It was American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers Stakes, the best horse winning the battle and losing the war.

Nyquist, who will break from the inside post, will be racing for the first time in 71 days. When the colt had an even longer layoff back in February, he won his 2016 debut by fighting off Exaggerator in the stretch and running away from him late.

This is the summer return of the Derby winner. "It's going to be really special seeing him get back in the gate," O'Neill said.

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When asked about the Sept. 24 Pennsylvania Derby, O'Neill made no commitments but did say: "I love that spacing. One thing about Nyquist and most good horses, if they give you 100 percent every time you lead them over there, it's so crucial to space them. The Travers is only four weeks. That's asking a lot."

O'Neill is well aware of the $200,000 Pa. Derby participation bonus that he and owner Paul Reddam would split if Nyquist wins the Haskell. It's $100,000 already for winning the Derby.

Unbeaten 3-year-old filly Songbird is scheduled to run that day in the Cotillion against local hero Cathryn Sophia, the Kentucky Oaks winner. If Nyquist comes, the day might even surpass the 2014 Pa. Derby when California Chrome and Untapable came to Bensalem and attracted the track's biggest crowd of the 21st century.