Nyquist 's first step onto the Triple Crown trail comes Feb. 15 at Santa Anita Park, where he'll look to keep his undefeated record intact against five other sophomore males in the $200,000 San Vicente Stakes (gr. II).
Reddam Racing's champion 2-year-old male of 2015 went five for five last year, including two-turn scores in the FrontRunner (gr. I) and Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), but trainer Doug O'Neill preferred to run Nyquist in the seven-furlong San Vicente for his 3-year-old debut and a prep for his likely next start in the Florida Derby (gr. I).
But even in the excitement surrounding "the Big Horse" in the San Vicente, O'Neill sees the forest from the trees.
"It's all about what's in the best interest of the horse and the ultimate goal is the First Saturday in May," O'Neill said when asked if remaining undefeated was a priority. "Obviously you want to win every race you go out there for, but you don't want to get too far ahead of yourself. We're excited and blessed to have him to begin with.
"Just to get him back to competing—he's showing us he's going to run a winning race."
If the Uncle Mo colt maintains his form, a win would certainly seem likely against the San Vicente field, and he has also shown talent sprinting, with wins in the seven-furlong Del Mar Futurity (gr. I) and 6 1/2-furlong Best Pal (gr. II). But he's only been on the rail once in his career, when he took his five-furlong debut at Santa Anita in June.
HAMMONDS: Nyquist Takes Del Mar Futurity Under Wraps
He's also defeated his most likely San Vicente challenger, Big Chief Racing's Exaggerator , who won the Delta Downs Jackpot (gr. III) last time out, but came in fourth—three lengths behind Nyquist—in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Nyquist also defeated the Curlin colt in their maiden special weight debut.
NOVAK: Exaggerator Holds in Delta Jackpot
Trainer Keith Desormeaux was even unsure about whether a one-turn debut was right for Exaggerator, but ultimately went with his gut.
"I'm kinda second guessing," Desormeaux said of Exaggerator, who also has a graded sprint score in the 6 1/2-furlong Saratoga Special (gr. II). "I could go either way with Exaggerator. The sprint being seven-eighths is a little different than an actual sprint, but it just seems like a great way to get their minds ready again for competitive racing.
"Maybe it doesn't take as much out of them physically as a two-turn race, it sharpens them up, and puts a little speed into them that you can't get in the mornings. It's a great way to wake them up for the upcoming journey."
NOVAK: Exaggerator Brave in Saratoga Special Santa Anita Park, Monday, February 15, 2016, Race 5
Beyond the two likely favorites is a group with plenty to prove against graded competition.
East Coast shipper Sheikh of Sheikhs is the only other stakes winner in the short field, but hasn't run his best in two graded tries. The Wesley Ward-trained Discreetly Mine colt finished third in the Hutcheson Stakes (gr. III) last time out Jan. 2 at Gulfstream Park and came in sixth in the Breeders' Futurity (gr. I) at Keeneland in October, with a score in the Juvenile Dirt Sprint Stakes in between.
Last-out maiden winners with upside—Denman's Call and Electrifying—will try winners for the first time.
Denman's Call, also trained by O'Neill, won his debut at Santa Anita Jan. 9, when the Northern Afleet gelding took a 5 1/2-furlong maiden special weight event by 3 3/4 lengths. Electrifying, out of the Bob Baffert barn, broke through in a six-furlong maiden claiming contest in just the second race of his career.
El Charro, racing for trainer David Jacobson for the first time, rounds out the field after a runner-up try last tine out in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes at Gulfstream for Juan Rodriguez.
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Nyquist (KY) Mario Gutierrez 124 Doug F. O'Neill 4/5 2 2Electrifying (KY) Tyler Baze 120 Bob Baffert 20/1 3 3El Charro (FL) Joseph Talamo 120 David Jacobson 8/1 4 4Denman's Call (KY) Flavien Prat 120 Doug F. O'Neill 6/1 5 5Exaggerator (KY) Kent J. Desormeaux 124 J. Keith Desormeaux 5/2 6 6Sheikh of Sheikhs (FL) Rafael Bejarano 120 Wesley A. Ward 5/1
Santa Anita Park, Monday, February 15, 2016, Race 5