The smile hasn’t left trainer Doug O’Neill’s face since ... well, it just hasn’t.
He hasn’t given any outward sign that conditioning an unbeaten Kentucky Derby winner brings added stress to one’s life. O’Neill has, in fact, remained so loose that he was asked multiple times Friday on the Pimlico Race Course backstretch whether he actually does lose any sleep, whether there is any concern creeping into his head right now.
“What keeps me awake at night is the excitement, realizing how blessed I am to be around an animal like Nyquist,” O’Neill said of the 3-to-5 morning line favorite for Saturday’s 141st Preakness Stakes.
If history is to be believed, O’Neill has every right to flaunt his confidence in Paul Reddam’s unblemished colt.
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For all the fuss made over the two-week turnaround between the first two legs of the Triple Crown, those who run in the Kentucky Derby prove to be far more successful in the Preakness. Beginning with Codex in 1980, only six horses who did not run in the Kentucky Derby have won the Preakness Stakes during that span — one of those being Hall of Famer Rachel Alexandra, who captured the 2009 Kentucky Oaks 15 days prior to her historic Preakness victory.
O’Neill backed that stat up in 2012 when he saddled I’ll Have Another to a Preakness victory following that colt’s Derby triumph. And when it comes to speaking authoritatively on the topic, no one is more qualified than Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who is seeking a record-tying seventh Preakness win this weekend with multiple graded-stakes winner Collected.
Baffert has never won the Preakness with a horse who did not run in the Kentucky Derby — ‘Exhibit A’ being 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. To hear Baffert tell it, if the Kentucky Derby is the equivalent of having to fight through the lane past Shaquille O’Neal and Dikembe Mutombo, the momentum and fitness carried forward makes the 1 3/16-mile Preakness more of an easy layup.
“Any time you win the Derby and you come back, usually they’ll come back and it’s easy because you don’t have to do much and they’ll just fire,” Baffert said. “Especially with a horse that has speed, you have an edge on them. Every time I’ve won the Derby it’s like ... everybody is floating, we’re just having a good time. There is still a celebration mode.”
In addition to Nyquist, only Kentucky Derby runner-up Exaggerator and ninth-place finisher Lani are making the classic turnaround. Trends or not, it is hard to look past the top two finishers from two weeks ago.
Both Nyquist and Exaggerator have been in good form since arriving in Baltimore. Though Exaggerator is 0-for-4 against the reigning juvenile male champion, trainer and co-owner Keith Desormeaux says the colt’s ability to recover is what could finally be the difference maker this weekend.
“Exaggerator had his energy level back, ate his feed ... and his demeanor and body looked the same 24 hours after the Derby. That is a great ability to recover,” Desormeaux said. “It’s not normal for a horse to recover that quickly, especially off a race where all those 3-year-olds were running. That is where I hang my hopes. Maybe Nyquist took a little longer to recover and he won’t have the energy to run his best, because obviously he has to be at his best to beat Exaggerator.”
With rain in the forecast Saturday, Nyquist and Exaggerator figure to be unfazed. The former won the Grade I Florida Derby over a wet track labeled good, and Exaggerator took the Grade I Santa Anita Derby by 6 1/4 lengths over a sloppy surface.
Of the eight “new shooters,” impressive Keeneland allowance winner Stradivari is the biggest wildcard. The Todd Pletcher-trainee will be making his fourth career start and first try against stakes company after winning his last two outings by a combined 25 3/4 lengths.
“Someone said something about picking this as a good spot,” Pletcher said. “I said, ‘This isn’t a good spot.’ It’s not like I found this little, cozy allowance race. It’s a classic race, running against an undefeated 2-year-old champion. It’s ambitious, but we think he deserves a chance. It might be that with only three lifetime starts he’s not quite ready for this big a jump, but we think it’s worth a try, as long as he shows up and runs well, comes out of it well and continues to move forward.”
Stradivari — along with Nyquist, Uncle Lino, Abiding Star and Collected — could dictate the early pace. If a tussle develops up front, Dale Romans-trainee Cherry Wine — who broke his maiden by 9 1/4 lengths over a sloppy Churchill Downs track last November — could come flying late to disrupt the established form.
Having won his eight career starts in pretty much every fashion that could be asked of him, Nyquist has given his connections the luxury of being worried about their horse, and little else.
“With a horse like Nyquist, I’m not overly concerned about the weather,” O’Neill said. “I would love to see it be nice just to have a lot of people out and for the track. But as far as rain or shine, we’re not going to change anything. We’ll pull his feed tub about eight hours before the race and ... once we pull the feed tub he knows and the game face begins. It’s real exciting to watch that all unfold.”
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)