LOUISVILLE, Ky. — They did things a little backward on the morning of the Kentucky Derby, toasting nine hours before the race went off instead of clinking glasses after.
Three years ago, Doug O’Neill served as the trainer for Goldencents, a horse partially owned by Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino. Team O’Neill and Team Louisville connected, even if the horse didn’t (Goldencents finished 17th in the 19-horse Derby field),so when O’Neill came to town again — this time with Derby favorite, Nyquist — the trainer made the rounds with his old cronies.
On Wednesday morning, O’Neill and six members of his racing team found themselves staring down glasses of chilled sips of Patron silver at the home of Vinny Tatum, the Louisville equipment manager.
A tradition was born, repeated on Thursday and Friday morning.
How could they possibly say no on Saturday?
“He was superstitious,” Tatum joked about O’Neill.
“Oh no, no, that wasn’t me,” O’Neill said with a smirk. “Hey, you gotta do something to take the edge off every now and then.”
The edge was there all week, even if O’Neill didn’t want to acknowledge it. He was polite and pleasant but not exactly forthcoming, refusing to take the bait when people asked if he felt like his horse wasn’t getting its proper due, cagey when asked about Nyquist’s talent.
Around 7 p.m. ET on Saturday night, as Nyquist roared to the wire, holding off hard-charging Exaggerator to win the Kentucky Derby, O’Neill’s edge was finally released, the floodgates spilling out the truth.
“Now I have to say it,” said the trainer who won the Derby with I’ll Have Another in 2012. “This is definitely the best horse I’ve ever been around.”
And now, before the rose petals have even wilted, it is time for the inevitable follow-up: Is he good enough to win the Triple Crown?
It took 37 years for horse racing to end the Triple Crown drought, the is-he-good-enough optimist’s query giving way to a will-any-horse-ever-be-good-enough-again pessimism.
“Mom, light a candle at Sunday Mass, will you?” O’Neill said when asked about Nyquist’s chances.
The reality is, he does have a chance — a good one.
Nyquist was 7-for-7 heading into the Derby, making him the first unbeaten winner here since Big Brown in 2008. (The flip side to that statistic? No undefeated horse has won a Triple Crown since Seattle Slew in 1977.)
Nyquist won this Derby with relative ease, as well, with jockey Mario Gutierrez guiding him from just off the lead to ahead of the pack with a late and decisive kick. The jockey termed the trip “amazing,” admitting he never even knew — or really cared — about Exaggerator’s late surge.
“He’s not going to allow another horse to beat him. He always has something left,” Gutierrez said of Nyquist. “If someone’s coming late, he can win by five lengths or he can win by a nose. If anyone is coming late, I’ll know he’ll have something else.”
Gutierrez, O’Neill and everyone else associated with Nyquist had plenty of confidence in the horse all along, and he was certainly feted like the favorite.
Casual visitors to the backside made a point to stroll by his barn, and at early-morning workouts people seemed to pay a little more attention when he breezed by on the track.
While his owners on Saturday morning were sipping their tequila, the horse was taking a drip out of Lord Stanley’s Cup. NHL caretakers like to take the Stanley Cup around to big shindigs annually, and with Nyquist named after Detroit Red Wings player Gustav Nyquist, popping by his barn seemed to make good sense.
Except the horse’s favorite status always seemed to come with a good dose of skepticism.
This Derby field wasn’t exactly greeted with a lot of enthusiasm, the 3-year-old crop considered slow and not terribly impressive. That, then, left Nyquist the best of an average bunch, not exactly giving people a lot of reason to get excited.
It didn’t help, either, that he was competing against another horse that wasn’t even on the Churchill Downs grounds: American Pharoah still casts a long shadow around the sport, with his race to the Triple Crown last year and ensuing wins afterward making for some big horseshoes to fill.
But with this Derby win, the detractors will now likely give over to the dreamers. Las Vegas oddsmaker William Hill has set the “yes” on a Triple Crown at +250. He was +700 prior to the Derby.
“The key word is obvious,” said Keith Desormeaux, the trainer of Exaggerator. “I learned that in San Vicente. Mohaymen [who was upset by Nyquist] learned that in the Florida Derby. He keeps teaching us every day. Mucho respect for Nyquist.”
That, of course, isn’t news to O’Neill or anyone else around the barn this week. The trainer’s edge wasn’t from concern or even worry. It was more a defense mechanism, a way to ward off the doubters and keep the negativity out of his way.
Which is why it was a completely different trainer who made his way from the winner’s circle to the postrace news conference. High-fiving strangers as he walked through a chute of fans, he hugged old friends and joked easily, giddy with his win, but even more happy with the horse that he has.
“Hey DK,” he said to a friend, stopping the phalanx of cameras and police officers around him to bear hug a friend.
“Where are you going?” his friend responded.
“Molly Malone’s,” O’Neill responded, naming a popular bar and restaurant in Louisville.
No doubt there would be more toasts, the perfect celebratory sandwich for a day that started with 9 a.m. tequila shots, before a near dawn press meeting at the barn with “a lot of water and a lot of aspirin.”
On Monday, it is on to Baltimore and the May 21 Preakness for Nyquist and Team O’Neill. Oh, and one other person.
“Oh yeah, Vinny’s coming,” O’Neil joked. “He’s good luck.”