BALTIMORE – There is something strange and unfamiliar in the air this week at Pimlico Race Track, a crumbling relic that slouches atop a residential knoll north of downtown and awakens one weekend every year to rub slumber from its eyes and embrace a momentary relevance. For nearly four decades, populist racing in American was driven—and in the end, held hostage by—the long gap between Triple Crown winners. It was a powerful and (often, too) all-consuming storyline that reliably produced a five-week crescendo of anticipation, followed by gutting disappointment at the end. Finally, last June, American Pharoah became the sport’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, liberating the sport from that particular narrative prison and rewarding multiple generations with a transformative experience.
But if the drought was a burden on the game, it was also a reliable one. Each spring we could summon up the names of those who had fallen short, and recall their heartbreak. From Spectacular Bid to Real Quiet to Smarty Jones to California Chrome. We knew their failures by heart. It grew tiresome, but remained familiar. Today, we miss them a little. The drought was the enemy we knew. (NBC has been beating the Pharoah promotions drum throughout the spring, trying to feed off the emotion of that moment, even though Pharoah himself is on a stud farm in Kentucky, never to race again.) Now there is no drought and the Triple Crown chase has a very different vibe. Late Saturday afternoon, Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist will go to the post in the 141st Preakness as an overwhelming favorite to take down the second leg of the Crown. If that happens, the sport will be chasing not a breakthrough, but an encore.
A question will arise: Are all Triple Crowns equal? And the answer will be: Yes. And no. Three races are three races; the Triple Crown is one of the most significant achievements in any sport, in any era. Period. The accomplishment defines the horse. Yet: Pharoah’s victory was uniquely emotional. A Triple Crown that comes after 36 years of misses is manifestly more powerful than the one that comes a year later. Yet a potential Nyquist Triple Crown neither diminishes, nor is diminished by, what took place a year earlier. It is simply different.
Racing hasn’t been in this position since 1974, the year after Secretariat won the sport’s first Triple Crown since Citation in 1948 (Drought I). In that year, Cannonade won the Kentucky Derby in an upset, then finished third in the Preakness to Little Current, who went on to also win the Belmont Stakes; three years later Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown and one year after that, Affirmed (the only back-to-back Triple Crowns in history). Spectacular Bid’s shocking loss in ’79 started the drought that Pharoah ended. Most racing fans have long forgotten–or weren’t alive for—the day when a Triple Crown was not a cause for generational celebration, but a semi-regular occurrence. We are not nearly there yet; Nyquist still has to win the Preakness to bring a live Triple Crown bid to New York. But we are well within in conversation range. And it just feels different. “Like a hangover?” asked Doug O’Neill, 47, who trains Nyquist. Last June he watched the Belmont Stakes at home in Santa Monica, California. “I was excited for American Pharoah,” says O’Neill. “Great for the game. I’m excited for Nyquist, too.”
He should be. Handicappers have turned the Preakness upside down in search of alternatives to Nyquist and found little reason to believe he can be beaten. Bob Baffert, who trained American Pharoah and has won the Preakness six times, annually posits that if an honest horse wins the Kentucky Derby (not a fluke winner), that horse should win the Preakness. He will contest the Preakness this year with Collected, his B-team three-year-old who won the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland in Kentucky, three weeks before the Derby. “Why am I here?” asked Baffert. “I figure if Nyquist happens to throw an interception, we want to be there to catch it. We’re looking for a turnover.”
The Preakness will have an 11-horse field, including just two other starters who ran in the Derby: Runner-up Exaggerator and ninth-place finisher Lani. Among the others are a maiden (Laoban, fourth-place finisher in the Blue Grass Stakes), an intriguing, inexperienced flyer (Stradivari, who has run only three times, but won two starts by a total of more than 25 lengths) and a closer who barely missed starting in the Derby (Cherry Wine, who was a fast-closing in the Blue Grass and was excluded from the Derby because he hadn’t accumulated enough points in the qualifying system).
Nyquist’s resume is overwhelming in this company. He is unbeaten in eight lifetime starts, including five Grade I races, the highest level of the sport, and four more than the rest of the Preakness field combined, at five different racetracks. He was the best two-year-old colt a year ago and remains the best three-year-old colt today. With the Triple Crown grind in mind, he was entered by O’Neill in just two prep races before the Derby and hence remains apparently fresh and vibrant. “Feeling very optimistic about Saturday,” said O’Neill after Nyquist’s energetic gallop Thursday morning, in which he was keen to race Collected, the equivalent of a hockey fight before introductions.
The most intriguing opponent remains Exaggerator, who came rushing down the homestretch at Churchill Downs to finish second behind Nyquist in the Derby, 1 ¼ lengths behind. Exaggerator, whose dominant victory in the Santa Anita Derby prep race made him the second betting choice (5-1) at Churchill Downs, has finished behind Nyquist in all four of their meetings, but his Derby was the closest of the four. Jockey Kent Desormeaux, brother of trainer Keith Desormeaux, indicated to the Daily Racing Form that he might stay closer to Nyquist and leave less ground to make up (the Preakness is 1/16 miles shorter than the Derby). But Keith Desormeaux, the trainer, seemed less certain. “This is horse has been running his race, knocking down half a million dollars a race, coming in second,” said Keith. “Second is not a disappointment. We’re making money for our owners. I guess we could change tactics, but we’ve been so successful this way. We could go faster in the beginning, but that might take the finish out of my horse.”
Desmormeaux brings up a very real economic issue: Exaggerator was 17 lengths behind Nyquist early in the Derby and nearly caught him. But staying closer early doesn’t guarantee finishing closer at the end; Exaggerator is naturally slower than Nyquist and trying to keep up early could be costly, both to his finish and the owners’ bank accounts. “I’m really trying not to let it get into my head that we need to do things differently,” says Desormeaux. But then again, he could be tossing out misinformation, with every intention of attacking Nyquist early. The racetrack is not always the best place to seek, or find, honesty.
The pace could help Exaggerator, and also Cherry Wine, who will be running far behind the leaders. The speedy Uncle Lino, who shipped in from California with trainer Gary Sherlock, drew the No. 2 post position, and thus has little choice to sprint out of the gate. Nyquist is just outside Uncle Lino in the No. 3 post. “We’d like to follow Uncle Lino out of there and sit right outside him,” says O’Neill. This would mirror Nyquist’s trip in the Derby, where he sat outside Danzing Candy and eased into the lead on the turn for home.
However, there are more front-running-type horses in the Preakness than there were in the Derby. Baffert’s Collected will run early, as will Stradivari, who is trained by multiple Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher. It’s possible that the early pace will be fierce, which could help Exaggerator (“The faster, the better,” says Keith Desormeaux) and Cherry Wine. However, the Derby was very fast early (22.58 seconds for a quarter mile and 45.72 for the half mile) and while Nyquist ran close to the front, he slowed in the stretch, but did not collapse. His combination of exceptional speed and serviceable stamina make him a formidable horse.
One other factor: Forecasts call for significant rain all day Saturday in Baltimore, which would guarantee a sloppy track. Exaggerator ran explosively fast in the Santa Anita Derby on a sloppy track and Cherry Wine won a race in the slop by nine lengths. However, Nyquist won the Florida Derby on a track that was labeled “good” but was very wet. Offspring of his grandsire, Indian Charlie, traditionally love slop. “He’s going to fly in the slop,” says Baffert, who trained Indian Charlie.
There are always question marks. Nyquist has been well-rested in preparation for the Preakness (and potentially, the Belmont Stakes), but has never run two races just 14 days apart. His eight starts have been spaced by 64, 30, 19, 35, 108, 47 and 35 days. Nyquist is a sleek, athletic horse, though modest-sized. Think of him as Stephen Curry to American Pharoah’s Lebron James. As with almost every horse attempting to win the Preakness after the Derby, he enters new territory Saturday.
Still, I expect him to win. The field is weaker than the Derby’s. Nyquist should get to the lead on the backstretch when Uncle Lino quits. Stradivari is a wild card of whom much is being asked, like ascending to the major leagues after 100 games in Double-A. Exaggerator and Cherry Wine will close and come up short. And in falling darkness Saturday night, racing will send a horse to Belmont Park with a chance at the Triple Crown. Another Triple Crown.