(Reuters) - Four years after celebrating his first Kentucky Derby triumph, trainer Doug O’Neill is in prime position to toast another after his bay colt Nyquist was installed as the pre-race favorite for Saturday’s 142nd edition.
In 2012, Mario Gutierrez piloted the O’Neill-trained I’ll Have Another to Derby glory and the same jockey will be back in the saddle on Saturday when the unbeaten Nyquist breaks from the 13th post in a 20-runner field at Churchill Downs.
“It has allowed me to not be overwhelmed this time,” O’Neill said about the benefit of previous success at Churchill Downs in Louisville. “We found out that time that we had success doing what we’d been doing all along. It worked.
“So we’re just doing that again - same patterns, same style. We just want to stay on course. That’s what’s going to work. We know that now.”
Nyquist, who has won seven times at four different tracks, was rated the 3-1 early favorite and his connections were delighted with his 13th gate draw after winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in October the last time he carried that number.
“It’s good, lucky 13,” said Nyquist’s owner, Canadian businessman J. Paul Reddam. “It’s been our lucky number.”
Second choice in the first leg of U.S. thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown is Exaggerator, an 8-1 shot starting from the 11th post position, with Creator, Gun Runner and Mohaymen joint third picks at 10-1.
However, the strategy for Saturday’s 1-1/4 mile race could change markedly after Danzing Candy, winner of the San Felipe at Santa Anita, was drawn in the 20th gate.
Danzing Candy and Outwork, who will start from the 15th hole, were widely considered to be the likely pacesetters in Saturday’s opening leg of the Triple Crown for three year olds, but they will now need to come from wide out to get the lead.
O’Neill had initially been hoping that Nyquist would start outside Danzing Candy and Outwork so that jockey Gutierrez could closely monitor the early going, but he may now want Nyquist to set the pace.
“I wouldn’t mind that at all,” said the 47-year-old O’Neill. “I think Nyquist has shown the versatility to win on the lead and from off the pace, so we’ve got options, I think.”
Second choice Exaggerator, coming off an impressive win over a sloppy track in last month’s Santa Anita Derby, will have Kent Desormeaux on board and the colt’s connections were on cloud nine.
“You dream about this,” said Matt Bryan, one of Exaggerator’s owners. “It is a blessing. If you’re in the horse business, this is where you want to be.
“Just to be in the Derby is great, and then to have a horse that has a real chance to win, that is so special.”
Though conditions at Churchill Downs were wet and cold earlier this week, temperatures are forecast to be in the low 80s (28 Celsius) under sunny skies for the 142nd Derby.
Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Larry Fine