Preakness Preview

It’s tough being the middle child. Just ask the Preakness.

It wasn’t always that way. Eleven times before 1932, when the current order was established, the Preakness was run before the Kentucky Derby. Twice it was run the same day.

The reality of the current order is that no race in America will be bigger than the Kentucky Derby. And no race will be more important than the Belmont Stakes if a horse is going for the Triple Crown.

Winning all three races had mostly been a pipe dream until last year, when American Pharoah became the first horse to sweep all three races since Affirmed in 1978.

But Nyquist is only one-third of the way after winning the Kentucky Derby on May 7.

The Preakness is Saturday, leaving horses that ran in the Derby little recovery time. It’s also distinctive because of its distance, 1 3/16 miles, 1/16th of a mile shorter than the Kentucky Derby.

The track is one mile long, same as Churchill Downs or Santa Anita, but a half-mile shorter than Belmont Park, home of the final leg of the Triple Crown.

Art Sherman, the trainer of California Chrome, who won the Derby and Preakness in 2014, especially likes the race because of the people of Baltimore and track officials. It can be a stark contrast to getting swallowed up in the size of the Derby.

“They are outstanding,” Sherman said. “They make sure you are properly taken care of. They even give you a driver.”

The final field for Saturday’s race has not been set, but the story lines are starting to take shape. Here are questions that will be answered Saturday:

Will Nyquist win the Preakness?

Most likely, yes. Nyquist has handled everything that has been thrown at him — trouble throughout the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, the home-course advantage for Mohaymen in the Florida Derby, off tracks, fast fractions and late-charging horses.

It can be difficult to cut through the eternal optimism of trainer Doug O’Neill, but even he has elevated his game of positivity, Nyquist has looked so good.

“He looks fantastic,” O’Neill told reporters in Baltimore. “He’s a horse that gives off such positive vibes. He still continues to talk to us in his own way, and he’s doing really well.”

Every horse has a bad day, and every great horse eventually gets beat. But it’s not looking like Saturday will be that day.

Will the shorter distance be a factor?

Not really. Nyquist is a tactical runner. He can go to the lead but prefers to stalk in second or third. In the Derby, Danzing Candy ran the half mile in 45 3/5 seconds over a wet, fast surface.

“The hard rain [before the race] made it 45 and change but it was really like 46 and change,” said Mike Smith, Danzing Candy’s jockey. “The track was very, very, very quick.”

Despite those fractions, Nyquist never tired in the stretch. And all the talk about his sire, Uncle Mo, not having been bred for distance proved to be nothing more than empty water cooler talk.

Does Exaggerator have a chance to beat Nyquist?

If anyone does, it’s this talented colt. Exaggerator’s worst piece of luck might be that he was born in the same year as Nyquist. He’s got a lot going for him, especially the outstanding trainer-jockey combination of Keith and Kent Desormeaux.

It might have appeared as if Exaggerator could have caught Nyquist in the stretch if the Derby were longer, but jockey Mario Gutierrez didn’t have the pedal all the way to the floor.

Gutierrez said he didn’t even know Exaggerator was gaining on him because he knew he had the race in hand.

Nyquist seems to dig down when he is engaged by another horse. The seven-furlong San Vicente at Santa Anita is worth watching to see the duel between Nyquist and Exaggerator. Nyquist never blinked no matter how hard Exaggerator was coming at him. It was the race that first sold people on Nyquist.

Are there any fresh horses that could make this competitive?

If Nyquist loses the Preakness, it will be because he had a bad day, not because there is a more talented 3-year-old.

The connections with Gun Runner, who finished third in the Derby, will announce their decision Tuesday.

Bob Baffert, who has won this race six times, will be sending Collected to post. Collected is a three-time stakes winner, including the Lexington. The horse did not have enough qualifying points to make the Derby field.

Most of the buzz among the newcomers concerns Stradivari, running for Todd Pletcher. The horse has won his last two races but has never run in stakes company.

The thing to remember about all the newcomers is that they didn’t have enough points to qualify for the Derby, which means they weren’t ready. Two weeks shouldn’t make that big a difference.


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