Unlike Pharoah-phever a year ago, Nyquist-mania hasn't yet struck in the days leading to the Kentucky Derby. It might by Saturday night if the undefeated colt ends up in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs.
American Pharoah came into the Derby off rousing wins in two races in Arkansas, then won the Derby as the favorite and went on to become racing's first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.
Nyquist, meanwhile, will attempt to become just the eighth 3-year-old to win the 1¼-mile Derby with an unbeaten record. Nyquist has won all seven of his races, including a showdown over highly regarded Mohaymen in the Florida Derby.
The son of Uncle Mo has done everything right up to now, winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile to clinch 2-year-old champion honors. Trained by Doug O'Neill, Nyquist won the San Vicente in his 3-year-old debut prior to being shipped to Gulfstream Park for the Florida Derby.
"Of course," O'Neill said of added pressure in having the Derby favorite. "But you might say it's good pressure. I'd rather be the Derby favorite than a horse that snuck in."
Newly elected Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen has two shots at winning his first Derby, with Gun Runner and Creator. Gun Runner took the Louisiana Derby on March 26 in his last start, and Creator stormed from last-to-first to win the Arkansas Derby on April 16.
Fellow Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is confident about his lone entry, Mor Spirit, after guiding American Pharoah and Dortmund in Louisville last May.
Churchill Downs racing analyst Jill Byrne picked Mor Spirit to win.
"With no real solid standout like we had last year in American Pharoah — why not?" she wrote this week.
Byrne was among the national panel of horse-racing media members polled by The Courier-Journal of Louisville for its DerbyHQ Top 20 Poll. (See the results at right).
"It's difficult to knock Nyquist, but he's the favorite and is ripe for contrary thinking," said Scott Jagow, editor in chief of the Paulick Report.
Jagow, by the way, gave his No. 1 vote to Exaggerator, the Santa Anita Derby winner.
And what of American Pharoah? Nearly a calendar year since he embarked on the historic trek that would make him the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, the thoroughbred is living the dream.
His home is the picture-postcard setting of Ashford Stud, a 2,000-acre Kentucky farm. During breeding season, his day is a mixture of play (out in the paddock), visitors (more than 3,000 from 45 states and five different countries since he moved in last November) and work (one to three breeding sessions per day).
According to Ashford officials, Pharoah's "cover rate" has been exemplary for a first-time stallion.
After a little more than 100 breeding sessions, Pharoah has covered — the industry's term for impregnating — approximately 80 percent.
"He's taken to it like a champion," Ashford's Scott Calder said.
Contributing: Associated Press, Lexington Herald-Leader, Louisville Courier-Journal