Triple Crown Mania Take 2: Nyquist Goes for the Second Jewel

Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist (#13) has a chance to become the second unbeaten winner of the Triple Crown, but first, he must win Saturday’s Preakness Stakes. Photo BY Coady Photography, Churchill Downs

Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist (#13) has a chance to become the second unbeaten winner of the Triple Crown, but first, he must win Saturday’s Preakness Stakes. Photo BY Coady Photography, Churchill Downs

On the heels of last year’s Triple Crown sweep by eventual Horse of the Year and future Hall of Famer American Pharoah comes a reminder why it took 37 years to find a successor to 1978 Triple Crown champ Affirmed.

Reddam Racing LLC’s Nyquist is, as you read this, only two or three days away from taking the next step in his bid to duplicate American Pharoah’s feat. The 141st running of the Preakness Stakes is set for Saturday at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course.

With three classic races packed into a five-week schedule, there’s no time for idle moments and indecision. The turnaround time between races has been one of the things that is most challenging about sweeping the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

That factor and the other hurdles that make the sweep so elusive are appropriately demanding. The Triple Crown is among the grandest achievements in Thoroughbred racing and all of sports, with American Pharoah being only the 12th horse to earn the title of Triple Crown winner since Sir Barton first swept the three races in 1919.

The Triple Crown is an extraordinarily difficult task because it deserves to be. To weaken or dilute the conditions of the series would serve to lessen the achievement of future winners, and perhaps somewhat tarnish the legacies of the dozen that are already in the books.

So it is with virtually no rest that unbeaten Nyquist is at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course, where he awaits the 1 3/16th mile race that is his second step toward making the roster of Triple Crown winners a baker’s dozen. And with success on Saturday, the Doug O’Neill-trained son of Uncle Mo can truly take aim on joining elite company in U.S. racing.

The roster of American Triple Crown winners is easy to recite, for there is only one. Seattle Slew emerged with a perfect record from his sweep of the three races in 1977.

So Nyquist, the 3-year-old star named in honor of a National Hockey League star, could by early Saturday evening be two-thirds away from racing’s ultimate hat trick.

Nyquist will be heavily-favored to complete that task, although challengers and non-believers abound. As of this writing on Tuesday, at least 11 rivals were expected to step into the Pimlico starting gate on Saturday with the goal of denying the Kentucky Derby winner another bit of history.

Even with a win on Saturday, there’s plenty of work to do. Since our century count rose to 21, three horses earned triumphs in the first two legs of the Triple Crown: War Emblem, Funny Cide, Big Brown, I’ll Have Another and California Chrome.

Funny Cide came the closest of those, fading to finish third in the 2004 Belmont Stakes to a revitalized Empire Maker, who was hampered by an injury when he finished second in the Derby.

California Chrome fought through the stretch but could do no better in 2014 than a fourth-place finish to Tonalist, who had missed both the Derby and the Preakness because of an injury suffered during the winter in Florida.

War Emblem stumbled out of the starting gate in his Belmont and finished eighth behind 70-1 longshot Sarava. Big Brown failed to finish in losing his Belmont to longshot Da’ Tara in one of the most bizarre finishes in Triple Crown history. And I’ll Have Another’s bid for history in the Belmont was derailed by tendinitis the day before the race as was his bid for racing history.

So potential hazards loom for Saturday’s Preakness and the Belmont Stakes three weeks after that, but Nyquist seems to be a horse with the tools to handle most problems he could face on the track.

His Derby run was remarkable as he chased an unexpectedly hot pace, blew the race open with a dazzling surge at the top of the stretch and easily held-off his West Coast rival Exaggerator to win the roses in the 13th-best mile and a quarter time in Derby history.

If he should prove vulnerable on Saturday, it is most likely Nyquist would fall victim to one of three things:

•Fatigue from chasing the strong Derby fractions – It’s not a big concern, but the Derby was only his third race since last November’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile win at Keeneland. The thought here is that the lightly-campaigned favorite should be even stronger with the Derby under his belt, but there’s always the chance that the triumph in the biggest race of them all was more taxing than it appeared.

•The possibility of a speed battle at Pimlico – While the quick Derby pace was not anticipated, the running in the early going at Pimlico figures to be swift and contested. A hot pace, a poor outside post draw and even a little post-Derby fatigue could take a toll in the second jewel of the Triple Crown. But while the pace should be strong on Saturday, Nyquist seems versatile enough to handle any strategy that jockey Mario Gutierrez chooses.

•Bad luck – That possibility hangs over each horse in any race. Remember Native Dancer’s lone career loss in his hard-luck 1953 Kentucky Derby. “They should have a race that Native Dancer can’t win,” said trainer Bill Winfrey after that one.

With Kentucky Derby third-place finisher Gun Runner passing on the Preakness, the major threat to Nyquist in the Preakness again appears to be Exaggerator. Impressive Keeneland allowance winner Stradavari is an interesting, but inexperienced, player, and Churchill Downs-based contenders Cherry Wine and Fellowship have the potential to make some noise. Japan-based Lani’s Derby run was better than it looked, and he could be surging late in a speedy field.

For Preakness 141, make my top four: Nyquist, Cherry Wine, Exaggerator and Fellowship.

If I’m right, we’ll start talking next week about the prospect of back-to-back Triple Crowns. VT