Every great athlete has vulnerability, a frailty, something that can be unearthed and exploited for a challenger to pounce on.
Hall of Fame quarterbacks get pressured into interceptions. The best of guards double teamed into poor shots. And in Thoroughbred racing, the line of surefire favorites that have been conquered by race scenario and circumstance could wrap around the most vast of ovals.
Unbeaten Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist is not immune to having a bad day. Otherwise, 10 other challengers would have kept themselves out of the entry box Wednesday and let the 141st Preakness Stakes go down as a walk-over.
Even when the champion son of Uncle Mo hasn’t had things fall his way, he’s bested all who come at him. And if there is a weakness housed in that balanced, bay frame of his, those who keep lining up to try and take advantage are darned if they can figure out what it is.
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“Not right now,” Dale Romans, trainer of Preakness entrant Cherry Wine, quipped when asked if there were any holes in Nyquist’s game. “Fatigue would have to be what would beat him, if he got fatigued in the two weeks (since the Kentucky Derby). If he stays the same, he’s tough. He’s the looming champ over everybody just like (Triple Crown winner) American Pharoah was last year.”
The towering presence of Nyquist and his 8-for-8 career record were enough to make the Doug O’Neill-trainee the 3-to-5 morning line favorite out of post position No. 3 when entries were draw for Saturday’s running of the Preakness Stakes. Kentucky Derby runner up Exaggerator was installed as the 3-to-1 second choice out of post No. 5.
“I think the whole team is really just living the dream. To be 3-to-5, to be 8-for-8 heading into the Preakness, it’s such an honor and such a privilege,” O’Neill said.
For a horse that was still fighting for widespread respect prior to his 1 ¼-length win in the Kentucky Derby on May 7, Nyquist heads into the second leg of the Triple Crown with many wondering what could possibly transpire in the 1 3/16-miles test that would keep him from the winner’s circle. He answered the stamina question with his Derby win, and he did so after sitting just off wicked fractions of 22.58 and 45.72 set by pacesetter Danzing Candy.
He can go fast early and still finish. He can win five Grade I races over five different tracks. He can continue to leave would-be rivals searching for any sign that, maybe, the fire in Nyquist’s belly is starting to dim.
“There were two times when I knew I had him,” said trainer Keith Desormeaux, who has had his charges Exaggerator and Swipe run second to Nyquist a combined six times. “One was with Swipe in the Grade I FrontRunner (last September). We came through on the inside and…Swipe was full of run and we hooked him at the eighth pole and got to his throatlatch and Nyquist dug down again.
“The other race when I knew with more confidence that we had him beat was in the San Vicente (on February 15). Nyquist set the pace in :44 2/5 and Exaggerator is sitting right off his flank and…I just knew with a half in 44 and change there is no way (Nyquist) could continue. I think we got to his shoulder and the dang horse rebroke. He’s just a phenomenal horse and he’s tough to beat, but it’s fun trying.”
With rain in the forecast for most of the day Saturday, the prospect of an off track is not unwelcome news to the top two contenders.
Exaggerator ran the best race of his life when he won the Grade I Santa Anita Derby by 6 ¼ lengths over a sloppy track while Nyquist took the Grade I Florida Derby by 3 ¼ lengths over a wet track that was labeled good.
What may be more of a factor than the weather is how the pace scenario sets up. On paper, the Preakness features more horses with early speed as Nyquist, Stradivari, Uncle Lino, Awesome Speed and Collected are all candidates to set the early fractions. While that may seemingly play right into the hands of closers like Exaggerator and stakes winner Fellowship, O’Neill reminds that one would be hard pressed to find a quicker pace than the one his horse tracked two weeks prior.
“We were watching that (Derby) replay, 22 and change, 45 and change and a lot of those horses that were around us backed out of it and we kept going,” O’Neill said. “That’s where (jockey) Mario (Gutierrez) is such a great rider. He’ll know the pace and if they’re flying, we’ll sit off. And if they’re not flying, we’ll set it.
“In an ideal world, we wanted to be outside all the speed horses. But we’re so blessed to have such an amazing horse with so many gifts, one of them being he leaves the gate running. And if (the pace) is hot and heavy, Nyquist has shown he can sit off a hot and heavy pace.”
Desormeaux deemed the No. 5 post “inconsequential” given Exaggerator’s late-running style. Whether the son of Curlin is five lengths or 15 lengths off the early leaders, his conditioner and co-owner is confidence his bold kick will make itself known when the rubber hits the road in the stretch.
Whether that, or anything else, is enough to defeat Nyquist is another story.
“We can’t change our style, it’s been too successful and we’d be stupid to do that,” Desormeaux said. “I thought about it today and if someone told me ‘Keith, we’ll let you run second in each leg of the Triple Crown regardless of who beats you’ I’d take it before. That’s just amazing, not just to run second in the Derby but hopefully win here. But...I guess what I’m getting around to is I’m not putting a huge amount of pressure on us to change tactics in order to win. We have successful tactics now, we’re not changing.”
What: Second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown
When: 6:45 p.m.
Where: Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Md.
Purse: $1.5 million (Grade I)
Distance: 1 3/16 miles
Favorite: Nyquist (3-5)