I’ve been coming to Pimilico quite a few years now, and I admit to at least a brief sense of surprise each May when I drive down Northern Parkway and there it is, the yellowed grandstand, amazingly in one piece, rising up into the Maryland sky. It’s still here. It hasn’t burned to the ground, or been condemned by state or local inspectors, or collapsed from an unfortunate gust of wind.
Last year, outside of American Pharoah’s victory, all the local chatter around the Preakness was how Pimlico’s owners might finally throw in the towel on unrequited refurbishment pleas and ship the second jewel of the Triple Crown to nearby Laurel Race Course. That hasn’t happened, not yet anyway, and the traditional part of me approves.
The talk this year, at least around the Stakes Barns on Friday morning, wasn’t something Baltimore talks a lot about but never does anything about (Pimlico), but something everybody talks about but can’t do anything about (the weather) and how it will affect Saturday’s 141st running.
I want my picture taken in the sun.
Keith Desormeaux, trainer of Exaggerator
“I want my picture taken in the sun,” Keith Desormeaux, the ever-defiant trainer of second choice Exaggerator, said Friday morning, referring to the official snapshot taken in the winner’s circle.
Unbeaten Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist is the 3-5 favorite in the morning line, but it is Desormeaux’s horse, the Derby runner-up, that consensus says stands to benefit most from the weatherman’s prediction of a rainy day. Exaggerator’s most impressive outing, by far, came on a sloppy track in the Santa Anita Derby. While the rest of the field was slipping and sliding and going nowhere, Exaggerator blew by as if running on the Bonneville Salt Flats.
True, two weeks back at Churchill Downs, Exaggerator proved he could fly on a fast track — as Desormeaux is quick to point out — just not as fast as Nyquist, who held off his California competitor for a fourth head-to-head win. “I thought they’d be getting tired of us by now,” Nyquist owner Paul Reddam quipped when told Nyquist’s connections were itching for try number five.
The rest of Saturday’s field shows potential for future production. The Todd Pletcher-trained Stradivari dazzled in an allowance win at Keeneland, but the Preakness is a tough spot for a stakes debut. Trainer Dale Romans admits his Cherry Wine, third in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, faces a tough task, but he thinks the weather forecast works in his favor.
Collected, who won the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, is capable of hitting the board. He’s (a) improving and (b) trained by Bob Baffert, Prince of the Preakness, six-time winner of the race, the latest just last year with Pharoah. Baffert dined Thursday night with a group that included ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser and New York Times op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd, proving it’s good to know Pharoah.
“My memories of last year, we were just having a nice, beautiful relaxing time and then the clouds came and opened up and I’ve never seen rain coming down while the horses were in the post parade,” Baffert said Friday. “We had the one hole and they showed it (on the television he was watching) and it looked like a river down through there. But he left the gate like his hair was on fire and got the lead, went fast early and never looked back.”
Here’s betting Nyquist follows a similar path Saturday. Rain or shine, he’s the best horse in the field. And asked about the perils of precipitation, trainer Doug O’Neill shrugged off the meteorologists, saying he didn’t think weather would matter — Nyquist won the Florida Derby on a wet track, after all — but hoping it would be a beautiful day for the fans and the horses and, well, for just everyone involved.
“We’re just so blessed to be a part of this with this horse,” he said.
If that sounds like Mr. Sunshine, O’Neill has every reason to be. Around 7 p.m. Saturday, he should be the one smiling for the photo.
When: Saturday, 6:45 p.m. (NBC)
Where: Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Md.
2016 Preakness field