BALTIMORE – By sunset on Saturday afternoon we’ll know whether thoroughbred racing has another Triple Crown hopeful on its hands to attempt a potential repeat of last June’s rare feat completed by American Pharoah.
Pimlico Race Course will host the 141st edition of the $1.5 million Grade 1 Preakness Stakes (NBC, coverage begins 5 p.m.), the middle jewel of racing’s Triple Crown. Nyquist (3-5), the Kentucky Derby winner and morning line favorite, will look to become the third straight horse, and fourth in five years, to capture the first two legs of racing’s Triple Crown series.
The biggest question of the day is “Can he do it?” The undefeated Nyquist will put his eight-race winning streak on the line at Old Hilltop with plans on heading to New York to become racing’s 13th Triple Crown champion. With rain in the forecast, last year’s 2-year-old champion will face further adversity in his quest for racing’s Holy Grail. Post time for the Preakness is 6:45 p.m.
The top two finishers in the Derby will face off amidst a field of 11 colts in a race that’s been heavily dominated by favorites over the years. Not only have favorites fared well in Baltimore, but horses exiting the Kentucky Derby have won 13 of the last 15 Preaknesses. Bernardini (2006) and Rachel Alexandra (2009) are the only two non-Derby runners to wear the Black-Eyed Susans during that time frame.
Trainer Doug O’Neill shipped Nyquist to Maryland from Churchill Downs as soon as the dust settled to get the horse acclimated to Pimlico’s track and surroundings. Team O’Neill planned out the same course as they did in 2012 when I’ll Have Another shipped in early after winning Kentucky Derby 138. He went on to win that year’s Preakness before ultimately suffering an injury on the eve of his Triple Crown attempt.
O’Neill isn’t concerned with the quick two-week return after the Derby because of his light schedule heading into the Derby, completing only two preps, one being a 7-furlong sprint race. “He had five weeks to prepare from the Florida Derby to the Kentucky Derby,” said O’Neill. “Now it’s a quick turnaround. He’s showing all signs that he’s as good as ever.”
Mario Gutierrez has been aboard all eight of Nyquist’s career races, and he rode I’ll Have Another in both classic victories, so he has familiarity with Pimlico. The young jockey, 29, is excited about duplicating the effort from four years ago. “Being able to come back here with the kind of horse I have gives me a lot of joy,” said Gutierrez. “He loves to race the competition as well. If someone comes close to him he will prick his ears back and tread on.”
The chief competition will come from one of Nyquist’s West Coast rivals in Exaggerator (3-1). Beaten four times by Nyquist, the son of Curlin is back for more in the Preakness, after running out of track late in Louisville. The Desormeaux brothers are hoping the fifth time is the charm in solving the Nyquist puzzle.
“How am I going to turn the tables? Exaggerator’s best attribute is his ability to recover,” said trainer Keith Desormeaux. When asked why he wouldn’t skip the Preakness and head to New York to the race his sire lost by a nose to ambush Nyquist at Belmont, Desormeaux laughed and in his Southern drawl told the media he’s up for a fight. “Why not? It’s fun. It’s competition. It’s the Triple Crown,” he said.
His brother Kent will look to add a third Preakness to his resume, winning with Real Quiet (1998) and Big Brown (2008) in 13 attempts. Keith has spent a lot less time at Pimlico, returning for the first time in 25 years. “I can guarantee the word ‘stake’ was not involved in my last visit in 1991,” Desormeaux joked.
Both of the top two horses have thrived on wet tracks. Nyquist won the Florida Derby bout with Mohaymen on an off track and Exaggerator ran off in the Santa Anita Derby by over six lengths and will relish a sloppy surface.
O’Neill paid respect to his biggest challenger after watching Exaggerator work earlier in the week. “He’s a big, good looking horse. He shows up every race. It looks like we might get some rain. I know Team Exaggerator is high-fiving, they have to be happy,” said O’Neill.
Bob Baffert, a perennial contender for Trainer of the Year, will be looking to collect his seventh Preakness training victory Saturday afternoon. Collected (10-1), who will be ridden by the presiding Eclipse-winning jockey, Javier Castellano, comes in on a two-race win streak. Baffert thinks his horse’s speed will give him a leg up on the competition, especially if the conditions are murky.
“It’s not going to affect Nyquist,” Baffert said. “It will affect half of the field. The winner is either going to be completely clean or really dirty. I think my horse definitely has to be up there in the front. There is so much speed. There is quality speed. Uncle Lino is quality, my horse is fast and you’ve got some other horses that could be fast.”
A horse that will try to become the first horse since Bernardini to win the Preakness in his fourth career start is the lightly raced Stradivari (8-1). The son of Medaglia d’Oro exits a Keeneland allowance race where he thrashed the competition by better than 14 lengths in April. He broke his maiden on an off track at Gulfstream last December, winning that race by over 11 lengths from an outside post.
He will start from the far outside from Post No. 11 and if he breaks well and finds good position going into the clubhouse turn, he has the speed to keep on and is a relatively fresh horse entering the race. Trainer Todd Pletcher isn’t concerned with the post and thinks it is to his colt’s advantage.
“He’s generally a good gate horse and that gives (jockey Johnny Velazquez) the ability to break and survey things inside and see where he wants to hopefully position him going into the first turn. The good thing is you can kind of dictate things instead of them being dictated to you when you’re on the outside like that,” said Pletcher.
The race shapes up with the top two looking like the class of the field. I’ll use both in the top two spots and use Collected, Stradivari and Uncle Lino underneath in trifecta plays.
O’Neill hopes Nyquist “can carry the torch for what American Pharoah did last year.” The Triple Crown winner did it in the slop a year ago when a massive thunderstorm rolled through Pimlico 10 minutes before post.
Sometimes lightning strikes twice.
Team Nyquist sure hopes so.
Post Time Outlook: 1 – Nyquist; 2 – Exaggerator; 3 – Collected; 4 – Stradivari
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association and tweets @EquiSpace.