Nyquist has proven himself to be an exceptional race horse.
Given what he faced in the Preakness, though, even a superstar like American Pharoah would have had trouble pulling off a victory.
Nyquist isn’t that good, and he faded down the stretch of a muddy Preakness, finishing third behind Exaggerator and Cherry Wine. Unlike last year, when American Pharoah became the first Grand Slam winner in North American racing, the 2016 Triple Crown trail ended at the first hurdle.
The rest of his career will determine how good Nyquist will be – he could go on to win the Belmont and have success in the lead up to November’s Breeders’ Cup, or he could fade away into obscurity on a stud farm.
However, Saturday’s loss doesn’t tell us much in either direction. It was a race where he was fighting an arch-rival, a wet track and his own instincts.
Nyquist had already beaten Exaggerator four times, and in the Florida Derby, he had proven that he could run on a wet track. The problem was that he had never had done both at the same time.
Exaggerator had shown in his lopsided Santa Anita Derby victory that he’s a monster in the mud, but he’d spent his entire career trying and failing to pass Nyquist. He’d failed in their joint debut at Santa Anita, again in last fall’s Breeders’s Cup and two weeks ago in the Kentucky Derby.
On paper, the Preakness set up even better for Nyquist than the Derby. With several early-speed horses in the field, none of who figured to still be going after 1 3/16th miles, he could tuck in behind the pace duel and cruise past tiring horses down the stretch. That would still leave Exaggerator coming at the end, but that hadn’t ever been a problem.
The speed duel developed, just as everyone expected, but it was Nyquist at the front, setting blazing fractions alongside Uncle Lino. The two horses, both sired by Uncle Mo, ran the first quarter mile in 22.38 – the fastest opening split in Preakness history.
Trainer Doug O’Neill had told jockey Mario Gutierrez that, despite all the one-gear speed horses, he wanted Nyquist at the front.
“If we’re going to get beat, let’s get beat being aggressive and not trying to get cute and get in trouble,” O’Neill told the Daily Racing Form. “We thought we had the best horse and just wanted to ride him like the best horse and not get too cute with trying to get perfect positioning.”
Once the duel got started, though, Nyquist and Uncle Lino sprinted themselves into oblivion. Despite the record start, they finished the half mile in 45.56 seconds – only slightly faster than the Kentucky Derby pace – and hit six furlongs in 1:11.97. Nyquist was already running significantly slower than he had at Churchill Downs, and he still hadn’t shaken off Uncle Lino.
He did that at the top of the stretch, but the effort had been too much, especially just two weeks after the Derby. As soon as Uncle Lino faded, Exaggerator finally passed Nyquist, looking as good as he had in the slop at Santa Anita.
Gutierrez tried to angle Nyquist off the soupy rail, but it was too late. Exaggerator was gone, and another mud-lover, Cherry Wine, nosed in front of Nyquist at the wire to take second.
How tough had the pace been? Uncle Lino left the track in a horse van, although early reports were that he hadn’t sustained a major injury.
Winning trainer Keith Desormeaux, who picked up his first Triple Crown victory with brother Kent in the saddle, said that Exaggerator will be headed to the Belmont in three weeks. O’Neill said that he would check Nyquist’s condition, but that his early plans also included the Belmont.
That would mean a sixth matchup for Exaggerator and Nyquist – an unusual rivalry in the 21st century. Top horses rarely run much more than a dozen times – American Pharoah only had 11 races – so to see each other six times would make Exaggerator and Nyquist the modern-day Affirmed and Alydar.
That’s a pairing that horse racing would love to replicate.