BALTIMORE – He was a champion at 2, remained unbeaten through the Kentucky Derby, beating a field many thought was substandard, and his Triple Crown bid came soon after a lengthy Triple Crown drought ended, which might have initially kept him from being fully appreciated.
That was the story arc in 1977 for Seattle Slew, and there are many parallels that can be drawn to Nyquist, who will try to keep his perfect record and his Triple Crown hopes alive when he starts as the heavy favorite Saturday in the 141st Preakness Stakes here at Pimlico.
Like Seattle Slew, Nyquist won all of his starts at 2, earning a divisional Eclipse Award. Like Seattle Slew, Nyquist beat a Derby field that appeared to be below par. Of the 19 horses who ran against Nyquist two weeks ago at Churchill Downs, only two are back for the Preakness, equaling the number of Derby rivals Seattle Slew faced at Pimlico in 1977.
And like Seattle Slew, appreciation for Nyquist may be suffering from a Triple Crown hangover. Though Seattle Slew was four years removed from the mighty Secretariat ending a 25-year Triple Crown drought in 1973, Nyquist is racing in the large shadow cast by American Pharoah, whose sweep of the Triple Crown last year ended a 37-year gap. Had American Pharoah gone the way of Smarty Jones, Spectacular Bid, and California Chrome, losing the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes, there might be even more anticipation over what Nyquist is trying to achieve.
To be sure, Nyquist is starting to get his due. His Kentucky Derby victory was satisfying and emphatic. Bettors made him a strong 2-1 favorite against 19 others, he was clearly best on the day, and students of time noted that his Beyer Speed Figure was a career best. Eight starts into his career, there is the very real possibility that he’s still improving.
“American Pharoah did a wonderful job,” said Doug O’Neill, the trainer of Nyquist. “Those are big shoes to fill, but Nyquist can fill them if we’re as fortunate to do as much as American Pharoah. It would be wonderful if he could fill those shoes and carry the torch forward.
Nyquist has shown the ability to handle just about anything thrown his way. He has five Grade 1 victories, earned at five different tracks – Del Mar, Santa Anita, Keeneland, Gulfstream, and Churchill Downs. He has won when working out ideal trips, like in the Kentucky Derby, and prevailed when early race trouble could have beat him, like in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Those who doubted his aptitude at 1 1/4 miles saw him sail through the finish line in the Derby and then gallop out as if he could do more. He cuts back to 1 3/16 miles in the Preakness.
“He went from seven furlongs to a mile and an eighth before the Derby,” O’Neill said, referring to a two-prep schedule of the San Vicente Stakes and Florida Derby. “He’s won from five furlongs to a mile and a quarter. He’s won from the rail multiple times, from the outside. What I love is the five Grade 1’s at five different tracks. That’s pretty incredible.”
In the Preakness, which has a purse of $1.5 million, Nyquist will try to win his sixth Grade 1 at his sixth different track. He is the 3-5 favorite on the lines of both Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form’s national handicapper, and Keith Feustle of Pimlico.
Nyquist’s main rival is undoubtedly Exaggerator, who was second in the Derby. Although Exaggerator has lost four times to Nyquist, he is inching ever closer, having been beaten just 1 1/4 lengths in the Derby, and he has made a positive physical appearance here this week, looking ready to get right back into the ring and take another swing.
Exaggerator’s rider, Kent Desormeaux, said that some traffic he encountered in the Derby “denied me the opportunity to challenge Nyquist,” but added, “I’m not sure Nyquist would have let me by.”
As a result, Desormeaux said, “For several reasons, I’ll adjust to the situation in an attempt to beat Nyquist.”
Nyquist starts from post 3, Exaggerator from post 5, with Awesome Speed – one of the expected front-runners – between them.
The only other horse exiting the Derby is Lani, the Japanese-based horse who finished ninth at Churchill Downs.
The other eight runners all were kept out of the Derby, either because they weren’t deemed good enough at the time – like Collected and Unlce Lino – or they didn’t draw in from the also-eligible list, like Cherr Wine and Laoban.
Uncle Lino was third behind Exaggerator in the Santa Anita Derby, then won the California Chrome Stakes at Los Alamitos.
“He’s improved a lot mentally,” said Gary Sherlock, who trains Uncle Lino. “He’s not crazy, but he’s been like a little kid, wanting to go, go, go all the time. Now he drops his head when he does his work.”
Laoban has shown speed in his races, but he is removing blinkers for this race, and trainer Eric Guillot said he does not want Laoban to be battling for the lead with the likes of Abiding Star.
Always quick with a quip, Guillot said he believes the Preakness speed is “stacked higher than my plate at a Chinese buffet.”
Abiding Star, Laoban, Nyquist, and Uncle Lino are all sons of the white-hot stallion Uncle Mo, giving him four of the 11 runners in this race.
Stradivari is a wild card. He has the least experience, with just three starts, and is making his stakes debut but comes off a fast allowance win at Keeneland. Both he and Collected figure to try to lay just off the leaders.
If the leaders go too fast too soon, that would be beneficial to late runners like Cherry Wine, Exaggerator, and Fellowship.
The Preakness is the 13th race on a marathon 14-race card, with first post at 10:30 a.m. Eastern and the last scheduled for 7:35 p.m., more than nine hours later. Post time for the Preakness is listed as 6:45 p.m.
There are seven stakes preceding the Preakness, three of them graded, including the Grade 2, $250,000 Dixie for older grass runners.
Weather could be a significant factor Saturday. The National Weather Service is calling for a 90 percent chance of rain, with a high of just 59 degrees.