The Triple Crown train, without the possibility of a Triple Crown, moves on to the Big Apple and the Belmont Stakes in three weeks, but from this vantage point, Saturday’s Preakness Stakes at Pimlico contained a feeling of closure, of shutting the door on a glorious run.
That run started with American Pharoah’s victory in last year’s Kentucky Derby and rolled on through the Preakness, then the joyful roar of the Belmont crowd — not to mention, well, America — at the sight of (finally) a Triple Crown winner, on through Pharoah’s Breeders’ Cup Classic win at Keeneland, thus completing the so-called Grand Slam.
It was on that same day last October that Nyquist picked up the baton, winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. When he breezed through first the Florida Derby and then the Kentucky Derby, his lifetime record eight-for-eight, it appeared we were on our way again. Buckle up, enjoy the ride.
But then the clouds rolled in at Old Hilltop and precipitation brought a halt to Nyquist’s parade. Exaggerator, his California competitor who had failed to nab Nyquist on four previous occasions, found the fifth time a charm. Truly a monster on a muddy track, Exaggerator hit the wire first.
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And yet for all the new-day technology, the analytics, the cutting edge techniques, Saturday’s outcome probably had not so much to do with track conditions as it did with an old track adage: Pace makes the race.
This year’s Kentucky Derby field contained very little early speed. Everyone expected Danzing Candy to sprint to the front, and he did just that. No horse joined him, however, and in a mile-and-a-quarter race there was plenty of time and space for the rest of the field to settle in, which is exactly what Nyquist did, finding a forwardly-placed spot, ahead of traffic, with room to move.
That wasn’t the case Saturday. Trainer Doug O’Neill instructed jockey Mario Gutierrez to ride Nyquist like he was the best horse in the race. So Gutierrez did. Starting from the three-hole, Nyquist broke cleanly and revved his engine early. This time, however, Nyquist had company. To his inside, from post position two, Uncle Lino made a play for the lead. To Nyquist’s outside, from post position four, Awesome Speed showed similar intentions.
I was inside Pimlico’s indoor paddock, part of a group watching the race on one of NBC’s television monitors. When a time of 22.38 for the first quarter mile flashed on the screen, “That’s not good,” said the Daily Racing Form’s Dave Grening, who was standing next to me. He was right. Nyquist was working too hard.
O’Neill admitted as much afterward as Nyquist headed back the barn as Exaggerator headed to the winner’s circle. Given the elements, the condition of the track, the way the race unfolded and Exaggerator’s obvious superiority in the slop (plus overall talent), remaining unbeaten wasn’t to be.
I remember the look on trainer Shug McGaughey’s face as he stood on the Pimlico track after his horse, Kentucky Derby winner Orb, finished fourth in the 2013 Preakness. It was the look of a trainer who believed he had the best horse in the race but wasn’t sure what had just happened. Three years later, standing near the same spot, his horse having finished third, O’Neill was trying to smile through his disappointment, but he had that same look. Racing does that.
To be sure, there’s more good racing ahead. Maybe Nyquist will ship to New York to face Exaggerator again in the Belmont and we’ll have a racing rivalry to carry us through the summer. There’s the Haskell and the Travers and Keeneland’s fall meet and the Breeders’ Cup, this year at Santa Anita.
Still, standing with my shoes stuck in the thick Pimlico mud, watching Doug O’Neill force a smile, Saturday had the feel of the end of something. We’ll have to wait a year to see if it comes around again.