A Triple Crown Return to Earth

Kentucky Derby runner-up Exaggerator splashed to victory in the Preakness to avenge his loss to Nyquist two weeks earlier. Photo by Jim McCue, Maryland Jockey Club

Kentucky Derby runner-up Exaggerator splashed to victory in the Preakness to avenge his loss to Nyquist two weeks earlier. Photo by Jim McCue, Maryland Jockey Club

Following our collective ascent to the giddy heights of last year’s romp by American Pharoah through the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, this spring’s sudden return to Earth has been a little jarring.

The hard landing can be described in five words that were underscored in each of the 37 years of Triple Crown frustration prior to the 2015 sweep by last year’s hero.

The Triple Crown is hard.

For two weeks following his victory in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, most racing conversations centered on Reddam Racing LLC’s Nyquist and his chances to become the first unbeaten winner of the Triple Crown since Seattle Slew in 1977 and just the second overall.

Although the Preakness field overflowed with horses that possessed early speed, many observers – including this one – felt Nyquist could back off the early speed in the 1 3/16-mile second jewel of the Triple Crown, make a well-timed move to keep his unbeaten record intact and march on to Belmont Park for the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes, the final jewel of the Triple Crown.

The task became more difficult when post positions were drawn, and Nyquist ended up in number three, with the very speedy California Uncle Lino to his inside and a fistful of speedy types outside of the Derby winner’s starting gate.

Nyquist, shown in his Kentucky Derby triumph under jockey Mario Gutierrez, suffered his first career defeat in his third-place run in the Preakness.  Photo by Coady Photography, Churchill Downs

Nyquist, shown in his Kentucky Derby triumph under jockey Mario Gutierrez, suffered his first career defeat in his third-place run in the Preakness. Photo by Coady Photography, Churchill Downs

Rather than taking back with Nyquist and risk being trapped on the inside while surrounded by all that speed, trainer Doug O’Neill and team decided on a strategy to get Nyquist out of the gate and carry the fight from the opening bell. If Nyquist was the best horse, as they believed, he would get the job done.

Lurking, was Kentucky Derby runner-up Exaggerator, a mud-loving stretch-runner that was zero-for-four in head-to-head battles with Nyquist but had launched a strong stretch run in the Kentucky Derby that had his team of Desormeaux brothers – trainer Keith and jockey Kent – itching for a rematch. And a Baltimore forecast that held a certainty of abundant rain at Pimlico Race Course and a resulting wet track made the Louisiana-born brothers only more anxious for the rematch.

In retrospect, the issue was settled within a half-mile. Nyquist broke sharply, as did Uncle Lino, and the duo zipped through a first quarter of :22.38 and half-mile in :46.56 over a sloppy and sealed track that was not as fast as they made it look. Biding his time along the inside was Exaggerator, benefiting from one of Kent Desormeaux’s best rides.

At the top of the stretch, Exaggerator swung to the outside and roared past the leg-weary leaders, rolling to a 3 ½-length victory. Nyquist fought on but was nipped for the runner-up spot by the Churchill Downs-based Cherry Wine, who made Preakness Day a joyful one for his team that includes longtime Louisville partners in trainer Dale Romans and owner Frank Jones.

The Triple Crown is hard.

Despite the end of hopes for back-to-back Triple Crowns following the end of a nearly 40-year drought, there was great promise in the prospect of a Triple Crown rubber match in the Belmont Stakes, a race in which Nyquist’s speed seemed a great tactical advantage and the opportunity to turn the tables on his Preakness conqueror appeared strong.

That is, until late Tuesday morning.

We had heard Monday that a slight fever had delayed Nyquist’s trip from Pimlico to Belmont. The colt had encountered a light fever at Keeneland on his arrival in Kentucky following his Florida Derby triumph, but he had quickly moved past it and continued his journey to the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle on the first Saturday in May, earning the mantle of roses for winning America’s greatest race.

But on Tuesday, there came news from O’Neill that Nyquist’s fever had improved and its timing would end any hopes of a Belmont Stakes bid by the Derby winner.

“His temp is back up a bit. It’s like 101 and change,” O’Neill told the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Alicia Wincze Hughes Tuesday morning. “Now, we have to get stronger with the antibiotics.

“We always want to do right by him, and the right move is to chill and not even think about a race until he is right.”

With regard to bad timing, O’Neill had to deliver that news on the morning of his birthday.

So the Belmont Stakes will be without Nyquist, leaving Exaggerator as the star of the show leading up to the race. Exaggerator will be heavily favored in that race, but in the absence of Nyquist, one can expect close to a full gate of 14 rivals for the last of racing’s spring classics.

Dale Romans is expected to be there with Cherry Wine and Toyota Blue Grass winner Brody’s Cause. Other possible Belmont horses include Derby fourth-place finisher Suddenbreakingnews and fellow Derby vets Mo Tom, Destin and Lani, the Japanese star who ran fifth in the Preakness.

Creator, trained by Steve Asmussen and another Derby runner, is listed as “possible” for the Belmont. Gun Runner, who finished third in the Derby for Asmussen, has worked twice since that effort and is not listed among the Belmont possibles, but his speed would make him an intriguing prospect should his trainer have second thoughts about a run for the colt in New York.

The main thing we do know about the Belmont as of this writing at midday on Tuesday is that an ailment – not major, it appears, but completely unforeseen – has knocked the Kentucky Derby winner out of a chance to claim two-thirds of the Triple Crown.

Over the space of four days, the ongoing story of Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist – with a classic pace-makes-the-race scenario contributing to his defeat in the Preakness and the uncertainty of illness entering the picture two days later – has underscored a lesson racing participants and fans learned a long time ago. It is one that underscores the special nature of 2015’s romantic spring with American Pharoah.

The Triple Crown is hard.

Which is as it should be. But that reality doesn’t make disappointing news of recent days any easier to digest.

Meanwhile, the roster of Triple Crown winners, for at least one more year, stands at 12. VT