Trainers Doug O’Neill and Keith Desormeaux showed up on the Pimlico Race Course backstretch Sunday morning still trying to digest the respective efforts their charges had put forth during the 141st Preakness Stakes the evening before.
The former had admittedly gotten spoiled by the previously unbeaten son of Uncle Mo and was beginning to think Nyquist was invincible. While O’Neill thoughtfully analyzed the scenario that allowed Desormeaux’s Exaggerator to go from vanquished to conqueror against the Kentucky Derby winner, the Louisiana native one barn over said he too was still realizing the game-changing run his colt had unleashed — and the new chapter to the rivalry it ignited.
“Obviously, we prepare and hope and make sure we have done all we can to get the horse to the race in the best shape, but goodness, the actual feeling of winning is honestly still sinking in,” Desormeaux said. “I’ve been pretty good at these things (media obligations) all week, but I’m at a loss for words right now. I’m still processing it.”
Less than 24 hours after Exaggerator handed Nyquist his first loss in nine career starts in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes, both camps confirmed a classic rubber match was on tap. A humbled but proud O’Neill confirmed Sunday that Nyquist would ship to New York on Monday to begin preparations for the Belmont Stakes on June 11. Desormeaux also declared his colt a definite entry for the 1 1/2-mile final leg of the American classics.
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“That kind of was the plan ... to point for all three Triple Crown races and, ideally, try to win all three,” O’Neill said. “But you know, I think he ran a real gusty race yesterday and ... as long as he continues to show good energy and does well, we’ll try this again in three weeks.”
The Preakness marked the fifth meeting between Nyquist and Exaggerator. The reigning juvenile male champion won the previous four, including his Kentucky Derby triumph. Given the versatile manner of Nyquist’s eight wins, a reflective O’Neill said Sunday he and his team were having dreams that defeat might never come for the five-time Grade I winner.
Even while watching Nyquist finish third in the Preakness after being pressed by Uncle Lino through fractions of 22.38 and 46.56, there was a moment in the stretch when O’Neill still believed Paul Reddam’s colt would find a way to re-rally after being passed for the first time in his career.
“You know, even the great Secretariat got beat. They’re not machines, as much as he was seeming like a machine being undefeated and doing everything like a super horse,” O’Neill said. “He is a super horse. I think he ran his race, Exaggerator just ran an unbelievable race.
“When I saw (jockey) Mario (Gutierrez) have to suck back and have to go around in the stretch, I thought uh-oh, that’s not good. Then for a split second I though he might come back just knowing how much hope this guy continued to convey on a daily basis. Even at that point, there was part of me that was like, he’s still going to find a way to win. He’s still a winner in our minds.”
The combination of the stout early pace, a sloppy track Exaggerator clearly relished and a rival who just continues to improve all played a role in Nyquist tasting defeat for the first time. Criticism has already come Gutierrez’s way for engaging Uncle Lino on the front end, but O’Neill said the decision to go to the lead was his call.
“The fast pace would be blamed on me because I didn’t want any traffic trouble (out of post No.3) in the first turn,” the California-based trainer said. “In an ideal world, if we could have been outside of speed then we could have went into that first turn maybe at a little easier pace, but I don’t think that beat us. He ran such a bang-up race two weeks ago and then he had to really run into that first turn. He tried so hard, you could see even the last eighth of a mile he was plugging away trying to get back to Exaggerator.”
Desormeaux did a masterful job ensuring Exaggerator was primed to deliver the kind of run his connections knew the son of Curlin had in him.
Having won the Grade I Santa Anita Derby by 6 1/4 lengths over a sloppy track, the rain at Pimlico was viewed as a clear advantage in Exaggerator’s favor. However, Dersormeaux says it’s not so much that the dark bay colt moves up on a wet track as it is other horses lose form.
“His numbers are just as good on a dry track as in the mud. The difference is that the other horses might not be as good,” said Desormeaux, who along with jockey Kent Desormeaux became the first siblings to team up to win the 1 3/16-mile Preakness. “We run just as good on the mud as on a fast track. Again, what we need to win is a fast pace, not a fast track, and we got that.
“It was not a suicidal pace yesterday, it was solid. They are supposed to run that fast at that level. It’s not about the muddy track, it’s about an exceptional horse.”
For all the sibling squabbling that may transpire, Keith Desormeaux also gave his younger, Hall of Fame brother a hat tip for having the good sense to tuck his mount in on the rail for much of the running while those around him were spread out and losing ground.
“The first part of the race I was like, ‘What the hell is Kent doing? Why is the whole field 5 to 6 lengths off the rail and Kent, I mean he makes a strong move from the middle of the track right down to the rail,” the elder Desormeaux said. “Afterwards, he reassured me like, ‘What are you worrying for?’ He said he took the horse down there during the warmup and he knew it was fine. They were all 5-6 paths off the rail when Kent knew it was fine down there.”
Among those expected to join Exaggerator and Nyquist in the Belmont are Preakness runner-up Cherry Wine, his Grade I-winning stablemate Brody’s Cause, Lani, Suddenbreakingnews and Destin.
Cherry Wine had a superficial cut over his right eye Sunday morning after injuring himself in the starting gate Saturday, but was otherwise bright and well, according to trainer Dale Romans.
“Usually I’m a guy who says I don’t want to run against the best, let them stay home. This time, I like this rivalry setting up (for the Belmont),” Romans said. “This will be a good race. And, hopefully, the public realizes that even though there is no Triple Crown on the line, this is going to be a great competitive race.
“I thought Cherry Wine would run big no matter what. The mud does move him up, but he can run on anything.”
Desormeaux said he would likely leave Exaggerator at Pimlico for about a week before shipping to Belmont. Romans is also likely to come in two weeks out. From a tactical standpoint, Nyquist’s running style fits right into the wheelhouse of what is most successful in the 12-furlong test.
“We said last night the motto now is, the new streak begins in three weeks,” O’Neill said. “We’re very proud, but we definitely were visualizing a Triple Crown winner for sure.”
Looking at how well his colt bounced out of his Preakness win and the stamina-laden bloodlines he carries, Desormeaux feels this time he may head into their latest showdown with the advantage.
“People think it’s about fitness. At this point it can’t be, it’s about pedigree,” Desormeaux said. “That mile-and-a-half deal is more about pedigree than what I’m going to do in the morning. I think my horse is a little more skewed toward distance as pedigree is concerned.”
Notes: Uncle Lino, who was vanned off after running seventh in the Preakness, continues to be evaluated after being diagnosed with mild inflammation in his left front tendon. “He definitely has an injury, but it’s not life threatening,” trainer Gary Sherlock said.