Nyquist ran a perfect Kentucky Derby to validate his perfect career. He came out of the race in perfect health and made his way to Baltimore in perfect order.
Sensing a theme here?
As the Doug O’Neill-trained colt prepares for the 141st Preakness on Saturday, he does so as the rare horse with a genuinely flawless resume. He won all five of his races as a 2-year-old, including the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Now, he’s unbeaten in three races as a 3-year-old, including the most coveted of them all, the Derby.
Already, the questions have moved beyond Nyquist’s individual competitors and on to matters of history. American Pharoah broke a 37-year Triple Crown drought in 2015. Now, Nyquist is an increasingly popular choice to do what Affirmed did in 1978 and make it two in a row.
As the Preakness looms, every story line comes back to that quest in one form or another. Here are five key story lines:
Is Nyquist a truly great horse?
Many handicappers and opposing trainers would have said ‘No’ heading into the Derby. Despite Nyquist’s undefeated record, they doubted his top-end speed and his pedigree to run 11/4 miles.
Those questions largely dissipated based on his performance at Churchill Downs, where he showed maturity by allowing two other horses to run in front of him and then put them away with ease when the time was right.
Nyquist will never inspire comparisons to the awesome physical specimens of racing history, but he shares some of the traits that made Affirmed great — versatility, an ability to remain calm and fit through the duress of travel and a stubborn resistance to letting rivals pass him.
O’Neill guided I’ll Have Another to Derby and Preakness wins in 2012, but he did not hesitate to call Nyquist the best horse he’s trained.
If he wins as the favorite at Pimlico, the chorus of believers will grow louder.
Can Exaggerator finally beat Nyquist?
The Derby runner-up is also likely to be the second choice in wagering at Pimlico.
Exaggerator is a terrific horse capable of sustained moves from the back of the pack to the lead. He doesn’t mind bad weather, and his rider, Kent Desormeaux, has won six Triple Crown races, including two Preaknesses.
His major flaw is that he can’t seem to beat Nyquist. Four times they’ve raced and in the last two, Exaggerator was in top form. But he’s never been able to get past the Derby winner.
In the moments after the Derby, trainer Keith Desormeaux did not hesitate in saying he wanted another shot at Nyquist. O’Neill is among the many who admire Desormeaux’s competitiveness and respect Exaggerator’s ability. But if the gap between the two best horses in this 3-year-old crop is narrowing, it isn’t obvious.
Can Bob Baffert steal the Preakness with a fresh shooter?
Every year, we hear speculation about fresher horses snatching the Preakness from a Derby winner coming back on two weeks’ rest. Often, that speculation goes up in smoke as the Derby winner’s greater quality proves out.
The same dynamic is back in play this year, with horses such as Laoban, Cherry Wine, Fellowship and Awesome Speed lining up to take their shots at Nyquist.
If one of the newcomers stands out, it’s probably Baffert’s Collected, who ran to a dominant victory in the April 16 Lexington Stakes. Collected has won three of four races this year, generally against weaker competition. His resume does not paint him as an obvious threat to Nyquist.
But it’s hard to dismiss Baffert, who has won the Preakness six times, though never with a non-Derby horse.
Is anyone else from the Derby field a threat to beat Nyquist?
The pickings are fairly slim. This crop of 3-year olds does not appear to be as deep in high-end talent as the 2015 group.
As of Thursday, trainer Steve Asmussen had not said whether Gun Runner, third in the Derby, would run at Pimlico. But if he does, he would make the Preakness more intriguing. The Louisiana Derby champion is, like Nyquist, a versatile horse with an instinct for winning races. He kept pace with Nyquist until the top of the stretch at Churchill Downs and briefly had Asmussen believing he would win the race. It’s conceivable the shorter distance of the Preakness would benefit him in a rematch.
Suddenbreakingnews, fifth in the Derby, was ruled out Thursday for the Preakness. The gelding was the most extreme late closer in a large pack of them in the Derby.
If Nyquist does win at Pimlico, will the buzz be the same as it was for American Pharoah?
Decades of pent-up emotion poured out when American Pharoah ended the Triple Crown drought last June. For so long, the question hovering over every Preakness was: Will this finally be the horse to do it?
That tension is largely gone this year. It’s debatable how much impact American Pharoah had beyond the excitement he created at his own races. Television ratings for this year’s Derby were down, for example. What’s not debatable is that he created a new benchmark for racing success in his generation.
Nyquist will be judged against that standard. He already has been. What’s impossible to know is how the public might react if he matches American Pharoah’s record or even betters it. It will be a fascinating dynamic to watch if he wins the Preakness.
Post time: 6:14 p.m. (approx.) Saturday
Where: Pimlico Race Course, Baltimore
TV: NBCSN — Friday, 3-5 p.m. (Black-Eyed Susan Stakes), Saturday, 2:30-5 p.m. (Preakness undercard); NBC — Saturday, 5-7:15 p.m. (race)
Post position draw: 5 p.m. Wednesday
Purse: $1.5 million
Distance: 1 3/16 miles
2015 winner: American Pharoah
Expected field: Nyquist (Kentucky Derby winner), Exaggerator (Derby runner-up), Cherry Wine, Laoban, Collected, Fellowship, Gun Runner (Derby show), Uncle Lino, Awesome Speed, Lani, Stradivari, Dazzling Gem.