ARCADIA, Calif. -- It was just four years ago that trainer Doug O'Neill, jockey Mario Gutierrez, and owner Paul Reddam won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with I'll Have Another, who parlayed a pair of victories at Santa Anita earlier that year into success in the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
Now the same team is set to embark on another bid at the classics with Nyquist. The differences between what the two colts have accomplished to this point are striking and, in the case of Nyquist, have allowed O'Neill to utilize a prep schedule he finds ideal.
I'll Have Another won just once in three starts at age 2 and never won a stakes race that year. When he debuted at age 3, he needed to make every start count to try to make the Derby, which that year used graded earnings to determine the Derby field. So, O'Neill brought I'll Have Another back from a five-month layoff in a two-turn race, the first of his career, in an attempt to get a foundation and earn money.
Nyquist raced five times last year at 2, winning them all, including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Keeneland, and was named champion 2-year-old male. The BC Juvenile secured the Eclipse Award, but it also impacted the prep schedule for Nyquist.
Beginning with the 2013 Derby, Churchill Downs switched to a points system to determine the 20-horse field. The point value of winning the BC Juvenile has been tweaked from its original 10 points and now is worth 20 points. As a result, Nyquist ended the year with 30 points -- including 10 for winning the FrontRunner Stakes at Santa Anita -- a total that has proven more than enough to make the Derby field since Churchill Downs switched to points from graded earnings.
So, Nyquist will make his 3-year-old debut on Monday at Santa Anita in the Grade 2, $200,000 San Vicente Stakes, a seven-furlong race that offers no points toward the Derby but which O'Neill prefers as a starting point, especially since Nyquist has won twice going two turns.
"If the points were not involved," O'Neill said the other morning at Santa Anita, emphasizing that they're not, "this is what's best for Nyquist. This is the perfect spot. We did it with I'll Have Another, starting off two-turning, but that's not the easiest thing in the world."
Nyquist was adjudged the best of his generation last year and now will have to show that he has progressed. In the inaugural Derby Watch top 20 list of 2016, Nyquist finds himself as the co-third choice at 10-1 on the future line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper. Nyquist is rated behind Mohaymen and Mor Spirit, neither of whom ran in the BC Juvenile.
Nyquist has a strong, steady series of works for his comeback. He has worked approximately once a week since mid-December, with three of the works officially at five furlongs and three at six furlongs, with extended gallop-outs.
"He's doing great," O'Neill said. "He's been really good. We've put a lot of foundation in him, hoping for a long, sustained campaign."
As with I'll Have Another, Nyquist is scheduled to have two preps before the Kentucky Derby, which would make the Derby his third start off a layoff. After capturing the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, I'll Have Another had his final prep in the Santa Anita Derby, which he also won.
The tentative plan for Nyquist is to have his final prep in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream on April 2. Nyquist is eligible for a $1 million bonus for winning that race because he was purchased out of Fasig-Tipton's 2-year-old sale in Florida last March. And though O'Neill said he and Reddam would revisit the schedule after the San Vicente, the timing of the Florida Derby -- coming five weeks before the Kentucky Derby, as opposed to four weeks out, like the Santa Anita Derby -- is appealing.
"Going in, we thought this was the best plan -- good foundation, two preps, then three races in five weeks," O'Neill said, referring to the Triple Crown.
O'Neill wants to let fans get closer to the process. He has started a monthly video podcast, "Downhome with Team O'Neill," on his stable's website, dougoneillracing.com, with the debut episode featuring Nyquist, exercise rider Jonny Garcia, and groom Elias Anaya.
O'Neill said the experience gained with I'll Have Another has prepared him for what is demanded of both people and horses on the Derby trail.
"It showed us how grueling that campaign is," O'Neill said. "You need a horse that's mentally tough and physically tough to handle it. This guy, knock on wood, has both.
"I love the fact that he's already shipped and held his form," O'Neill said, referring to the Breeders' Cup.
It was a race, considering his wide trip, that Nyquist had no business winning. But he did anyway.
"I get goosebumps thinking about it," O'Neill said.