Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 22, 2016

Exaggerator Puts An End To Triple Crown Dreams

A lesson common across sports is the importance of a short memory. When the Toronto Raptors and St. Louis Blues took the court and ice for their Saturday playoff games, it was critical that they did so unburdened by thoughts of their recent travails. Toronto had lost the first two games of the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals to Cleveland by a combined fifty points, and looked thoroughly overmatched by the Cavaliers. In the NHL’s Western Conference finals against San Jose, St. Louis had fallen behind two games to one by losing back-to-back shutouts. The Blues had not scored against the Sharks in more than 150 minutes, since the midway point of the opening game. Forgetting the past, Toronto used strong runs in the second and fourth quarters to pull away to a 99-84 win; while St. Louis netted two quick goals and rolled to a 6-3 victory.

The ability to move on quickly from defeat is only half of the short memory challenge of sports. It is every bit as important to avoid luxuriating in the warm afterglow of success before the ultimate goal is achieved. The Cavaliers had won a pair of games in dominating fashion; but they had not yet even reached the NBA Finals, much less laid hands on the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Similarly the Sharks had claimed the upper hand in their series, but a franchise often star-crossed in the playoffs was still six victories away from hoisting the Stanley Cup.

It is thus in every sport; the constant need to remain focused on the moment, without letting yesterday’s failure or success swing one’s mood or outlook. Horsemen and fans alike were reminded on an appropriately dank and gray Saturday at the track they call Old Hilltop that horse racing is no exception. Far from it, a sport in which the outcome can turn on events as fickle as the weather or a moment of inattention in the starting gate or that day’s disposition of the equine athletes proves on virtually every racing card the importance of a short memory.

It is easy to say and less so to do of course; perhaps it is understandable that so many who follow the sport got caught up in its recent past and acted like it was the certain prelude to the immediate future. It began with last year’s glorious run of American Pharoah, the gentle bay colt who swept the three Triple Crown races, ending a 37-year drought while becoming rock star famous. Recognizing the importance of their horse to the sport, owner Zayat Stables and trainer Bob Baffert continued to run American Pharoah into the fall, culminating with a 6 ½ length, track record victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland on the last day of October.

As noted here after the Kentucky Derby, the Pharoah effect lingers. While the sport’s golden days are in the distant past, interest, attendance and betting handles have all been up this year at many tracks. At Churchill Downs two weeks ago attendance for the Derby was second only to last year, and despite the forecast for off and on rain throughout the day and cooler than normal temperatures, a record crowd of more than 135,000 jammed old Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore on Saturday for the 141st running of the Preakness Stakes.

The Derby winner is inevitably made the morning line favorite for the Preakness, and this year Nyquist opened at odds of 3-5. Just two weeks ago, in the run-up to the first leg of the Triple Crown, there were many who doubted the entry from Reddam Racing. Some handicappers doubted his stamina, while others favored the winter book favorite Mohaymen or the hard closing Exaggerator. But when jockey Mario Gutierrez asked Nyquist to run at the top of the stretch, and his mount responded like an express train pulling away from the other contenders as if they were stop at every station locals, horse racing fell hard for the Doug O’Neill trained 3-year old.

Previous doubts were cast aside in favor of awe at the Derby winner’s undefeated record. With eight wins in eight starts, Nyquist arrived at Pimlico as the first undefeated Preakness entrant since Big Brown in 2008. Racing fans who had suffered in anguish through the interminable drought between Affirmed in 1978 and American Pharoah last year spoke openly of how fortunate the sport would be to have two Triple Crown champions in a row, as if the remaining two races were but technicalities. Early in the week, an article on the popular Horse Racing Nation website was entitled “Why Nyquist won’t lose the Preakness.”

To their credit Nyquist’s connections were among the few not caught up in the general euphoria. That’s because owner Paul Reddam, trainer O’Neill and jockey Gutierrez have first-hand knowledge of the capricious nature of their sport. Four years ago their horse I’ll Have Another ran down Bob Baffert’s Bodemeister in both the Derby and Preakness. With a pedigree that suggested the mile and one-half Belmont would not prove too daunting, they stood on the precipice of history, ready to end what was then a 34-year Triple Crown drought. But one day before that history could be written, I’ll Have Another was diagnosed with a tendon injury and scratched from the Belmont.

So their confidence prior to this year’s Preakness was leavened with caution, a sensible sentiment unshared by the many who chose to believe that racing’s recent past was a guarantor of the sport’s future. But Saturday dawned bleak and wet, conditions that favored Exaggerator, who had twice won in the slop. Then in early races on the Pimlico undercard, two horses were injured and had to be put down. The injuries were grim reminders of the frailty of thoroughbreds. Coming on the tenth anniversary of the ultimately fatal injury to Derby winner Barbaro during the Preakness, they also brought home the awful truth that the sometimes bleak nature of the sport is not limited to unknown claimers running at lesser tracks.

Then when the Preakness field broke from the gate Gutierrez urged Nyquist to the front on orders from O’Neill. The trainer wanted his horse to have a “clean trip, free-running.” But the strategy backfired when the speedster Uncle Lino engaged the favorite in a duel from the first turn to the end of the back stretch. The first quarter was run in 22.38 seconds, a Preakness record. With similarly fast fractions for the half and three-quarter miles, Nyquist’s chances were done before the field turned for home. The only question was which of the closers would carry the day, and it was Exaggerator who finally bested the Derby winner in his fifth try, with Cherry Wine nipping Nyquist at the wire for second.

There will be no back-to-back Triple Crown winners, and the Pharoah effect will not last forever. Horsemen and fans who allowed themselves to assume otherwise left the ancient grandstands at Old Hilltop both drenched and chastened. But with the connections for both Nyquist and Exaggerator already committing to the Belmont, what there will be in place of that fantasy is something well worth seeing. A grudge match to settle the score between two fine thoroughbreds, run at a historic distance at the Long Island oval known as Big Sandy. Throw in a mix of new shooters and a few of the also-rans from the Derby and Preakness still hoping to make a name for themselves, and add 90,000 screaming fans. It may not be historic. But for horse racing, it won’t be a bad day.

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Responses

  1. Nice article. Some people have said the advantage was Exaggerator’s due to the slop, but it was the fast pace that doomed Nyquist. I said it as it was happening. Let’s think about the Traver’s.

    Did you and Burt play a round on Saturday?

    Don


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