By Steve Silverman
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Horse racing is a funny sport, as if you didn’t know that already.
The whole world tends to take notice on the first Saturday in May, and the interest level is usually high two weeks later when the sport reconvenes at the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore for the Preakness.
If the same horse that came home first in the Kentucky Derby wins the middle jewel, then it’s a front-page story because the Triple Crown will be on the line at Belmont Park in June.
The 1½-mile track at the Belmont is the true test of champions and can bring about a Triple Crown winner if the Derby and Preakness winner has enough in the tank to survive the long stretch run.
Ahh, the Triple Crown. It appeared that such an event would never happen again.
After Affirmed accomplished the feat in 1978 with Steve Cauthen in the saddle, a rather notable dry spell hit the sport of kings. It lasted 37 years before American Pharoah got the job done in all three races last year.
This year, we are about to find out if Nyquist has the stuff to make it back-to-back immortal horses. He is the odds-on 3-to-5 favorite to win in Baltimore after his strong Derby performance.
Nyquist has a lot going for him, and the biggest factor may be his versatility. He has won by coming from behind and he has won by going to the lead. His best strategy and the one he employed in the Derby was stalking the pace and then turning it on in a big way as his nose hit the top of the stretch.
Nyquist was able to build a nice lead, and then he held off top challenger Exaggerator, who came through with an excellent stretch run and finished a strong second.
Those two horses are likely to be the best runners at the Preakness, but their order could be reversed. While you have to respect Nyquist’s record — eight wins in eight starts — the skies are likely to open up over Baltimore on Saturday.
That’s not going to be a problem for the first-place Orioles, who find themselves in Los Angeles against the struggling Angels, and it’s not going to be an issue for Exaggerator, either.
Exaggerator is a great mud runner.
He put on a spectacular performance in the Santa Anita Derby that was run on an off-track in April, and a wet track is likely to play into his strengths.
Nyquist has not run on a muddy or sloppy track in his career, so he is going to have to prove he will not be dissuaded by the rain.
Tactics are always important in any Triple Crown race. The traffic in the 20-horse field at the Derby is the big factor at Churchill Downs, and the big factor in Baltimore is a horse’s ability to handle the tight turns. It is harder for a horse to pass others while running the turns at Pimlico, so it’s usually better for horses to be close to the lead when turning for home.
That’s a key factor for Nyquist, and trainer Doug O’Neill will employ those tactics once again. However, O’Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez could find that there is a lot more speed in the Preakness than there was in the Derby. Uncle Lino, Awesome Speed, Collected, Laoban, Abiding Star, and Stradivari could all go to the front at the start of the race.
If just one or two of those horses break sharply from the gate and go, that’s good for Nyquist as he goes for a position near the lead. If three or more horses go for the lead and maintain a fast pace for a half-mile or longer, that’s good news for Exaggerator.
He will have a chance to pass tiring horses as he splashes around on the wet track.
He is a strong horse who has come close to Nyquist in previous races. This is the time I think he will get by Nyquist in the stretch.
It will be a thrilling race and Nyquist will be close, but this time Exaggerator will hit the wire first.
That means the Belmont Stakes won’t have the luster it did last year and the outsiders won’t be compelled to obsess about back-to-back Triple Crowns.
However, they will likely have a special battle on their hands that could be the rubber match between two exceptional horses.
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