In recent years, the Triple Crown has started to take on a consistent shape.
The Kentucky Derby winner faces a much weaker field in the Preakness, usually consisting of a couple horses who ran well at Churchill Downs and a lot of second-level talent who couldn’t get into the 20-horse field on the first Saturday in May.
If he takes care of business at Pimlico, he will face a tougher field three weeks later at the Belmont. Not only will there be three-year-olds who blossomed too late for the Derby, but there will be runners that skipped the Preakness and are much more rested.
That’s the situation that Nyquist finds himself in Baltimore – he’s a huge favorite in a 12-horse field – but a major wildcard has found its way into the game. It is supposed to rain all day Saturday at Pimlico, with up to an inch of rain expected before post time.
The concern isn’t that Nyquist can’t handle a wet track – he dominated the Florida Derby on a “good” surface, and he has a mudder’s pedigree. He was even named for a hockey player, so a slick surface should be right up his alley.
The issue is that there is just one mental image associated with this year’s Preakness field when it comes to racing in the slop – and it belongs to the closest thing he has to a rival. Last month, Exaggerator put forward a huge stretch run at muddy Santa Anita to post a huge win in the Santa Anita Derby.
Couple that with the fact that Exaggerator was the only horse making a move late in the Kentucky Derby, and you can see why a Saturday swamp might add a little bit of the drama to a race that looks like a foregone conclusion.
After all, Exaggerator has already faced Nyquist four times at four different distances on three different tracks, and he’s 0-for-4. He finished fifth in their career debuts at Santa Anita, fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, second in the San Vincente and second again at Churchill Downs. He’s tried different styles – he was head-to-head with Nyquist in the San Vincente and came from 17 lengths back in the Kentucky Derby – and he still hasn’t managed to pass him.
If he can’t do it in the rain, it is hard to see how anyone else is going to manage. Sloppy races are often won by a horse who goes wire-to-wire – it is good for morale to not spend the entire 1 3/16-mile race getting mud kicked in your face – but the Preakness field is filled with one-gear speed horses who have shown no indication of being able to make it around two turns.
The last time Uncle Lino raced in the slop, Exaggerator passed him like he was standing still. Awesome Speed’s name is false advertising, and while Lani is a star in Japan and the Middle East, he got blown out in the Kentucky Derby.
Collected and Laboan have never run fast enough to have a chance against Nyquist and Exaggerator, and Abiding Star only runs at the top of his game if he gets out to an uncontested lead. That’s not going to happen in this field.
Fellowship has lost his last seven races, which isn’t exactly the recommended form for a Triple Crown race, and Stradivari is making his first start in a stakes race.
If you don’t want to bet on Nyquist at 1/5, and you don’t have much faith in Exaggerator to end his losing streak, there might be one long shot worth a look. Cherry Wine is starting along the rail, and he has no early speed, so he’s going to have traffic issues for the entire race. He hasn’t won since January. Add in a career best speed figure of 88 – Nyquist put up a 103 in the Derby – and you are looking at a horse that is going to be entering the gate at odds pushing 50/1.
So why would anyone bet on him? There’s one small reason, but at those odds, it only takes one. Cherry Wine started his career as a turf horse, and wasn’t very good at it, but in his fifth career start, his race was moved to the very wet dirt course at Churchill Downs. He loved the mud, winning by more than 9 lengths, and he’s never raced on grass again.
Is he going to win? Probably not – Nyquist is a very, very good horse – but he might be the secret to big wins in the exacta and trifecta.