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Nyquist adds to Baltimore flavor, speed-laden Preakness being assembled

By James Scully

Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist headed to Pimlico Monday, allowing ample opportunity to get acclimated to the new track, and trainer Doug O’Neill employed the same routine with 2012 Derby winner I’ll Have Another, who was also owned by Paul Reddam and came back two weeks later to capture the Preakness.

While the strategy makes sense, it’s become the exception nowadays with the vast majority of Preakness horses waiting until the week of the race to arrive. Kudos to Team O’Neill for doing things differently.

O’Neill and his crew soak up the Baltimore atmosphere. Along with countless interviews and autograph signings, O’Neill took part in the Preakness 5K run, threw out the first pitch before watching a Baltimore Orioles game, visited the Baltimore Ravens’ practice facility and made other local appearances four years ago. He’s an ambassador for Thoroughbred racing.

O’Neill’s comfortable in his own skin and perfectly handled the pressure involved in preparing unbeaten 2-year-old champion and overwhelming favorite Nyquist for his Kentucky Derby bid.

Speed Kills

By the time front-runners Danzing Candy, Gun Runner and Nyquist reached the beginning of the far turn, Outwork, Whitmore and Tom’s Ready (4th-5th-6th) were starting to backpedal and the gap between the top 3 and rest of the field widened significantly as they rounded the bend. When Danzing Candy checked out nearing the completion of the far turn, Nyquist and Gun Runner arrived at the top of the stretch all alone.

Nyquist accelerated into the stretch full of run and the Derby was soon over. Gun Runner received the right trip finishing a commendable third but was out of gas by midstretch, weaving in and out through the final sixteenth of a mile. He didn’t possess the final gear of a Nyquist.

Exaggerator finished up powerfully for second, making up about eight lengths on the winner in the final quarter-mile, but the late runner was left with too much to do. I thought the previously front-running Outwork would be more forwardly-placed, and expected Mohaymen and Mor Spirit to be closer in the early stages than 12th and 10th, respectively, but none were ever a serious factor.

Nyquist makes his own trip and deserves plenty of credit, chasing fast splits of :22.58 and :45.72 while saving plenty for the latter stages. It was exciting to see him use his speed so effectively, preventing any stalkers from applying pressure during the middle part of the race, and that negatively affected a dedicated closer like Exaggerator.

Improving

Exaggerator may be 0-for-4 against Nyquist, but he’s come on for trainer Keith Desormeaux since switching run styles three starts back and may continue to show more going forward.

After being speedy earlier in his career, winning the Delta Jackpot (G3) on the lead in late November, the Curlin colt has become extremely effective employing one-run tactics from off the pace. He was so far back on Saturday, 15th after the opening three-quarters of a mile, before jockey Kent Desormeaux began to adeptly slice his way through traffic and Exaggerator offered an eye-catching turn of foot through the final furlongs to finish second by 1 ¼ lengths.

He still has ground to make up, but Exaggerator remains eligible to eventually turn the tables on his superb rival.

Speed in the Preakness

It will be no surprise to see Nyquist “bounce forward” with another sterling performance two weeks later in the Preakness, with three of the last four Derby winners recording the double, and circumstances are always interesting when a Triple Crown is on the line in the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes.

But Nyquist is not scaring off the competition with a full field of 14 possible according to the Pimlico media office. He won’t have to deal with Derby pacesetter Danzing Candy and the status of the other Derby front-runner, Gun Runner, is still in doubt, but an abundance of new speed could be assembled to take on the probable odds-on favorite.

Stradivari, a smart 14-length allowance winner most recently at Keeneland, appears likely to join the Triple Crown fold and will bring plenty of zip to the Preakness. Uncle Lino is another probable following a wire-to-wire tally in the California Chrome at Los Alamitos, and Blue Grass (G1) and Gotham (G3) pacesetter Laoban is confirmed after being excluded from the Derby field due to points. Sharp Azteca, an outstanding front-running winner of the Pat Day Mile (G3) on the Derby undercard, is also under consideration and would add even more pace pressure.

My first thought after the Derby was we could have a repeat of last year, when American Pharoah tracked the Derby pace in third before winning the Preakness wire to wire. However, Mario Gutierrez now appears likely to try and work out the same up-close trip from the Derby due to the new speed.