Does Anyone Want to Win the Kentucky Derby?

Well of course there are owners, trainers, jockeys, and breeders who do, but the horses? Even this deep into the prep season, 25 days out from the Run for the Roses, I’m not so sure there’s a horse who’s ready to win the Kentucky Derby.

So here’s the story, as prep races, all the way back to fall 2016 go, it’s been a pretty dismal  and wildly inconsistent affair.  There is no real star. There has been very little in the way of outstanding and consistent performances by this crop of colts.  There has been drama in the way of physical setbacks and peculiar behavior and in the case of one colt, both.

Coming into 2017, all eyes were on the very promising two-year-old champion, Classic Empire, facile winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.  Alas, the year for him to date has turned into one issue after another.  Classic Empire has yet to post a win, has run in only one race, and currently doesn’t have the points necessary to get into the gate for the Kentucky Derby.  He is scheduled to run in the last major prep of the year this Saturday, the Arkansas Derby.  If he finishes in the top four he’s in, although the way his year has gone, he’d generate a lot more confidence if he finishes first or second.  What’s the deal?  In his first and only start to date in the Holy Bull Stakes (February 4) at Gulfstream Park, Classic Empire came to the gate cranky and washed out and it just went downhill from there as he finished a well-beaten third behind Irish War Cry.  The next day it was determined that he had an abscess in one hoof, so there was a clear and valid excuse.  But since then his training for his next race has been interrupted by two instances where he refused to train.  Like went out to the track essentially planted his feet and refused to even canter, let alone gallop, around the track.  After the first time, again a physical excuse was determined; he was treated by a chiropractor for back troubles.  The second time there appears to have been no physical excuse, which leaves us at mental (and this is a horse that as a two year old racing at Saratoga last summer broke from the gate and promptly took a sharp turn, dumping his rider in the process).  He’s since moved to a quieter training center and is reported to be training brilliantly.  Well, all I can say is he’d better be to make the Derby gate.

Mastery jumped into the Kentucky Derby picture in March in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita in what was the best prep race performance of the season by far as he dispatched the rest of the field to win by nearly seven lengths.  And it was fabulous while it lasted, like about 10 strides past the finish line where jubilation quickly turned to valid dismay as jockey Mike Smith quickly pulled the winner up and he was loaded onto the ambulance for the trip back to his stall.  The next morning it was confirmed that Mastery had sustained a condylar (cannon bone, the long bone of the leg) fracture.  He has since had surgery and is recuperating.

In the meantime, the outcome of the other preps has been a free for all and racing reporter Randy Moss summed it up sweetly when he said Saturday that mostly it has been a case of wildly inconsistent colts scoring a win and then in their next race “not being able to be found with a search warrant.”

At this point, and actually throughout the prep season, the horse that has impressed me the most and that I believe has the most potential is Irish War Cry (Disclaimer: I have a bit of a special interest in Irish War Cry; more later).  He was impressive in his two wins this season where he defeated Classic Empire and Delta Jackpot (and later Fountain of Youth) winner Gunnevera in the Holy Bull Stakes and even more so this past Saturday when he won the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct.  However, in between, he inexplicably crashed and burned in a seventh place finish in the Fountain of Youth Stakes.  Nonetheless, he’s a beautiful, long-striding colt, who when he’s right is a delight to watch run.  A son of Curlin, he should have what it takes to get the Derby distance.

Girvin has emerged from the southeast as the victor of Risen Star Stakes and the Louisiana Derby.  He’s not flashy, but he grinds away to the finish line.  Winning two preps this year is a true accomplishment. As I write, Mike Smith has committed to ride Girvin in the Kentucky Derby.

Gormley got himself into the Derby gate following a win in the Santa Anita Derby also run Saturday.  Much like Irish War Cry, Gormley had an impressive victory in the Sham Stakes where he fought American Anthem down the stretch to the wire, but then finished very dismally, fourth behind Mastery, in the San Felipe.  Trainer John Shirreffs changed Gormley’s running style for the Santa Anita Derby to stalking instead of on the pace and it paid dividends.  Gormley is ridden by Victor Espinoza who knows where the Derby finish line is (California Chrome, American Pharoah).

Always Dreaming is the well-thought-of winner of the Florida Derby (off an allowance win), trained by perennial leading trainer Todd Pletcher.  In the Florida Derby he defeated Gunnevera (third).  He’s a nice horse, but I think the leap into a Derby win might be a big ask.

McCraken is another well-thought-of colt.  He won the Sam Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay and then wrenched his ankle and was briefly out of training and missed a planned race (the Tampa Bay Derby) in the process.  He returned to the races this past Saturday in the Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland, finishing a respectable third in his first career defeat.  Still, it could be just enough to set up the son of Ghostzapper for his Derby run. He already has a win over the Churchill Downs track, winning the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last fall.

Other (kinda) notables this year are Bluegrass Stakes winner Irap (who in the process got his first-ever win at 31-1), J Boys Echo (Gotham Stakes winner, fourth in the Bluegrass), Tapwrit (Tampa Bay Derby winner in stakes and track record time for a 1 1/16th-mile race, fifth in the Bluegrass), and Practical Joke (second in the Bluegrass).

As of Sunday morning the top 20 colts in terms of qualifying points are:

1.Girvin

2. Gormley

3. Irap

4. Irish War Cry

5. Thunder Snow

6. Always Dreaming

7. Gunnevera

8. Practical Joke

9. J Boys Echo

10. State of Honor

11. Tapwrit

12. Malagacy*

13. Hence

14. Fast and Accurate

15. McCraken

16. Battle of Midway

17. Patch*

18. Battalion Runner

19. Cloud Computing

20. Untrapped

21. Classic Empire (racing in the Arkansas Derby Saturday, April 15)

*Colts that did not race as two year olds. Only one horse, Apollo in 1882 has won the Kentucky Derby without racing as a two year old.

The standings will likely change a bit after the Arkansas Derby is run and, as always, there will probably be a few defections before May 6 due to injury or connections deciding to go in another direction.  My advice this year, more than any past year is, if you can, bet the field to win.  I think there’s a good chance that with a simple $2 wager on every horse you could cover your $40 outlay as I think there’s a very good chance a longshot wins the 2017 Derby.  I don’t expect any horse to go off at odds shorter than 2-1; the favorite could go off at 3- or 4-1.

This. Race. Will. Be. Wide. Open!

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What a Weekend

SATURDAY

The Jim Dandy Stakes (1 1/8), at Saratoga Racetrack was run with a field of six: Belmont Stakes winner and runner up, Creator and Destin, respectively; maiden Laoban; Governor Malibu (fourth in the Belmont); Mohaymen (fourth in the Kentucky Derby); and Race Me Home. When the gates broke, Mohaymen promptly fell to his knees, but quickly recovered. Laoban took the lead and Destin, Governor Malibu, and Race Me Home stalked, while Creator took his usual spot at the rear.  Laoban under red hot jockey Jose Ortiz set moderate fractions in the first three quarters at :24, :49, and 1:12, bordering on slow.  And it worked! Governor Malibu and Destin offered a mild challenge to Laoban’s lead, but never made a dent; they finished second and third. Mohaymen basically ran in place for fourth, Race Me Home dropped out to fifth, and Creator never made a move from last as if he didn’t realize he was even in a race.

It was entirely fitting that Laoban would win his first-ever race in the Jim Dandy Stakes. In 1930, Jim Dandy was the horse that at odds of 100-1 defeated Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox.

SUNDAY

The Haskell Invitational was also run at a mile and an eighth at Monmouth Park at Oceanport, NJ.  The outcome of the race was likely determined overnight into race day as it rained…and rained some more throughout the day, leaving the track sloppy.  Lining up to contest the Haskell were six more colts: Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, Preakness Stakes winner Exaggerator, Gun Runner (third in the Derby), Sunny Ridge, winner of the Withers Stakes in January, Iowa Derby winner American Freedom, and Awesome Slew.  When last seen, Exaggerator finished a dismal 11th in the Belmont. Nyquist didn’t get to contest the Belmont because he spiked a fever post Preakness; this was the awaited rematch between the two.

Well, if you saw the Preakness you basically saw the Haskell as it was essentially the same race repeated.  Despite trainer Doug O’Neil (who took the blame for the Preakness Stakes run strategy of Nyquist) and jockey Mario Gutierrez indicating Nyquist would be handled differently in the Haskell it didn’t turn out that way. Nyquist again hooked up for the lead with American Freedom and Awesome Slew and although the fractions weren’t as blistering as those set in the first two quarters of the Preakness they were swift enough that they appeared to soften the Derby champion up.  In the meantime, Exaggerator had taken his typical spot at the rail and the rear of the field although he wasn’t too far off the other horses. Exaggerator was hung four wide as he made his move out of the final turn and swept past all the other colts to take the lead and the win.  Once again he was a big kid colt, happily splashing though the mud. Nyquist fell back to fourth, his first-ever out-of-the-money finish of his career.  Sunny Ridge ground on to nip him, taking third.  Gun Runner never seemed happy with the conditions and finished fifth.  Awesome Slew plummeted to last, while American Freedom carried on for the runner up position.

There was a brief inquiry based on American Freedom’s jockey Rafael Bejarano’s objection against Kent Desormeaux and Exaggerator  for a bump in the stretch that was disallowed.

As of today, Laoban, Mohaymen, and Exaggerator are being pointed to the Travers Stakes August 27 at Saratoga.  There has been no word on the next race for the remainder of the colts that participated in the two races that typically are used to prep for the Travers. There is also no word as to any reason for Creator’s poor effort Saturday.  As I indicated in my previous blog, I anticipated that some colts might move forward (Laoban and American Freedom) since the Triple Crown races while others might start to regress (Mohaymen and Nyquist).  Only time will tell if some colts just had a bad weekend and who ends up at the top of this year’s three-year-old class.  We shall see.

Back On Track

The post-Triple Crown lull in major stakes races is ending and the start of the second half of major Thoroughbred  racing culminating in Breeders’ Cup World Championship weekend (November 4 and 5) at Santa Anita Racetrack is at hand.

Before I jump into who’s going to be participating in this weekend’s two major stakes a few quick updates.

Stradivari, who ran in the Preakness and Belmont, to fourth and fifth place finishes respectively, sustained a career-ending fracture Friday morning (July 22) while being worked in preparation for his next start.  He suffered a break to his right front leg; both a condylar fracture and a break in the sesamoids (condylar is the cannon or long bone of the leg and sesamoids are smaller support bones lower in the leg that would roughly translate to support apparatus in our ankle). He was scheduled for surgery to place plates and screws in the leg in the attempt to repair it earlier this morning at the Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital at Saratoga Springs, NY where he was in training.

On a MUCH brighter note, champion filly Songbird once again demonstrated why she may actually be the best three-year-old Thoroughbred in the country by dispatching the four other fillies that attempted to challenge her in Sunday’s Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga Racetrack.  In so doing, Songbird maintained her perfect record, she’s now nine for nine, and she overcame the Saratoga “Graveyard of Champions” curse (Remember last year with American Pharoah in the Travers Stakes? Yeah, I’d as soon forget too). Songbird, much like Nyquist, has show she takes her track with her and runs exceptionally wherever she’s entered to race.

On Sunday, unlike most of her other races, she got a wee mite bit of a challenge from a nice filly, Carina Mia on the turn for home, but under Mike Smith’s expert hands and handling she quickly shook off the attempt, and opened to daylight rapidly to win by five lengths.  Best of all, all reports indicate that Songbird came out of the race happy and fresh.  She’ll remain at Saratoga to prepare for the August 20th Alabama Stakes.

On Saturday, it was the return of California Chrome to American racing since his last start and win in the Dubai World Cup at the end of March, and the four-year-old debut of Dortmund, American Pharoah’s former stablemate and third place and fourth finisher in the 2015 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, respectively. The race was the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar Racetrack and it turned out to be bit of a surprise to me.  Since it was Dortmund’s first race of the year, I expected him to engage Chrome for a little while, but give way, being short race-wise and despite trainer Bob Baffert’s ability to rarely have a horse be short on conditioning even off a long layoff.

I was WRONG.  Dortmund not only engaged California Chrome, he wouldn’t let go of him and the two battled stride for stride from about the final sixteenth of a mile to the wire.  It’s an overused description, but here it’s apt–this race was a thriller and California Chrome was able to prevail by a head. It was a delight to watch and even the jockeys–Gary Stevens on Dortmund and Victor Espinoza on Chrome were in awe of the effort both horses had put forth in an effort to win, tapping each other in congratulations after they crossed the finish line nearly in tandem.  It will be very exciting to watch these two go at it again, most likely in the Pacific Classic near the end of August; that race will also likely feature 2015 Pacific Classic winner Beholder who made the group of colts entered in the race with her look like amateurs with close to an eight-length win. Fingers crossed that all three remain healthy and happy for that matchup.

Now for the upcoming weekend which marks the return to racing by most of the prominent three-year-old colts that were involved in the Triple Crown races.  On Saturday, the Jim Dandy Stakes will be run at Saratoga.  It is the traditional prep race for the “Midsummer Derby,” the Travers Stakes also at Saratoga. Belmont winner Creator, fourth-place Belmont finisher Governor Malibu, Mohaymen (fourth in the Kentucky Derby), and Preakness winner Exaggerator are among the horses who may run.  The real question mark of this group is Exaggerator; he posted a less-than-pleasing work in the eyes of trainer Keith Desormeaux last out and thus the trainer is wrestling with the start. Desormeaux has indicated that the main goal for Exaggerator is the Travers and he might just give the colt a bit more time and train up to that race.

On Sunday, the Haskell Invitational will be run at Monmouth Race Course in Oceanport, NJ.  Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist will make his first start since his third-place finish in the Preakness Stakes.  He’s recovered from the bug that kept him out of the Belmont Stakes and has been working well out of his West Coast base at Santa Anita. Gun Runner, third in the Derby, has raced and won since then in the Matt Winn Stakes at Churchill Downs.  Brody’s Cause, sixth in the Belmont, is also expected to run in the Haskell.

I’m not going to make any predictions for either race; at this stage I’ll just be watching and observing in an attempt to see who’s best.  Most of the colts have had a rest, grown a bit, and where they now stand among each other may have changed.  Maybe not and there’s always the chance that a colt that wasn’t ready for the Classics emerges that will give these more established colts a run for the money.  That’s why in many ways, this second half of the Thoroughbred racing year is more fun than the run through the spring.  And perhaps, at the end of the year, the horse that will be crowned best three-year-old in the nation could be the one running like the “girl” she is–Songbird.

 

 

Observations

Now that Belmont 148 is in the books there’s just a few post race points to cover.

First, it really did turn out to be an exciting race with Creator launching from near last to catch Destin at the wire to finish first.  Perhaps his rotten Derby trip really did compromise his performance and finish; we’ll never know. And so much for the position that the Belmont Stakes isn’t won by deep closers.

This was the first time I can recall having three grey colts finish one-two-three in such a major stakes race.  And of course two of them–Creator and Lani are sons of super stallion Tapit; Destin is by Giant’s Causeway. Tapit now has two of the last three Belmont Stakes winners, being the sire of 2014’s winner–Tonalist.

While I was very disappointed in Exaggerator’s 11th place finish (his worst race finish ever) I am relieved he came out of the race sound and healthy and it’s clear in watching replays that jockey Kent Desormeaux wrapped up on him when he felt they were not going to contend.  Exaggerator will remain in New York, at Belmont for the immediate future, and then ship upstate for some of the summer stakes (the Jim Dandy and/or Travers Stakes being the most likely targets) at Saratoga.

The second biggest disappointment for me was Suddenbreakingnews.  In my opinion the race was tailor made for him and I had high hopes that with Mike Smith riding he’d breakthrough; no such luck, he didn’t run a step.  I have no explanation and have heard  nothing about the performance (or lack of same) from his camp.

Besides the close finish, the highlight of this race for me was: LANI!!!  Yes, my boy, the grey wonder horse (in more ways than one) yet again took another significant step forward in his third place finish.  Ninth in the Derby, fifth in the Preakness, Lani just kept at the task and kept coming.  He and his handlers were viewed with a lot of skepticism and in some instances mockery because of his behavior and the way he trained–usually long and slow. They underrated this horse. This spring, dating back to March, he has travelled from Japan to Dubai to Chicago, Louisville, Baltimore, and Elmont, New York.  Although his training might have appeared out of the norm, there was never any doubt in my mind that he was the fittest horse in this bunch of three-year-old colts.  That, combined with his Tapit/Sunday Silence pedigree, kept him in contention throughout this series.  As for his behavior, I attribute that to being quite the ALPHA colt.  But he learned and improved throughout and I think, provided he stays sound, once he returns to Japan he’ll be quite successful.  I would love to see him return this fall to contest the Breeders’ Cup Classic.  GO Lani!

Creator will ship to his eventual stallion home, WinStar Farm, for a few weeks of rest and recovery. Barring the unforeseen, he should also return to training for the Saratoga meet.

Nyquist is back in California and resumed light training late last week. His future races have not been announced, but if all goes well, I’m sure he’ll be pointed to the Breeders’ Cup Classic as this year it’ll be run at his home track at Santa Anita Park.

It was an interesting series of Triple Crown races. The three-way split of the races further emphasizes the difficulty of winning one, let alone all three, and shows how amazing and rare American Pharoah’s sweep last year was through the 19-horse Derby field, monsoon conditions of the Preakness, and the mile and a half “Test of the Champion.”

American Pharoah’s feat was further flattered in the Belmont undercard.  Last year’s second-place finisher in the Belmont, Frosted (also a son of Tapit!) blistered a talented field in the Metropolitan Mile. Not only did he set a record time for the stakes, he won by 14 1/4 lengths.  It was an absolutely stunning performance and honestly the best race of the day. With Frosted’s performance, you have to wonder what American Pharaoh might have been capable of as a four-year-old.

 

No Crown, Fun Race

This Saturday, Triple Crown races for 2016 come to a close with the 148th running of the Belmont Stakes.  Some of the drama was lost when Nyquist had to be withdrawn (he’s back in California and may return to light work next week), but this should still be an interesting race.  And yet again, weather may play a significant role in the outcome.

Here’s the surprisingly large field:

1.Governor Malibu

2.Destin

3.Cherry Wine

4.Suddenbreakingnews

5.Stadivari

6.Gettysburg

7.Seeking the Soul

8.Forever D’Oro

9.Trojan Nation

10.Lani

11.Exaggerator

12.Brody’s Cause

13.Creator

With the exception of Governor Malibu, Gettysburg, Seeking the Soul, and Forever D’Oro, we’ve seen all the starters at least once before in the Kentucky Derby (of those 20, only Exaggerator and Lani have contested all three races). Of the four newcomers, Governor Malibu is the only one with a possibility of hitting the board.  He was second in the Peter Pan Stakes earlier in the Belmont meet.  It’s a traditional prep race for the Belmont and the race that positioned Tonalist for his Belmont win in 2014.  I don’t think Governor Malibu is quite the horse Tonalist was on the track. Gettysburg is primarily in the race as something of a rabbit to insure an honest pace. Seeking the Soul and Forever D’Oro are both recent allowance race winners.

The forecast for Saturday had looked pretty nice up until this morning and now there’s the possibility of severe weather at Elmont, New York Saturday afternoon. If the track does come up sloppy, I don’t think I need to tell you who benefits significantly in those conditions; you saw Exaggerator’s performance in the Preakness Stakes!  Lani and Cherry Wine will also move up if the track is wet.  Even if it doesn’t rain, I still believe this is Exaggerator’s race.  He appears to have taken to the Belmont track, his weight and coat are good, and he’s found his most effective running style.  I’ll also be interested to see if Lani can move up a few more places as he did in the Preakness and if Suddenbreakingnews can be closer to the pace to make that come from behind kick pay off.

Of the other horses in the race Destin, Stradivari (who I still think is being asked for too much too soon), and Creator could hit the board, but it’s harder for me to see them as the winner.  Super longshots–Trojan Nation and Brody’s Cause. It’s a horse race and that means anything can happen!

Post time Saturday is 6:37 p.m.

No Exaggeration

I’m thinking Nyquist …is more closely pursued or being closed upon even more rapidly by Exaggerator. Or there’s the possibility that Exaggerator repeats his Santa Anita Derby tour de force in the slop and no one keeps pace.”–May 18, 2016 Post  

Hey, a little bit of both.  Exaggerator wins the 141st Preakness Stakes by three and a half lengths.

At last.

I’m sure at some point in the past year Exaggerator’s connections must have felt they were in a modified Brady Bunch episode; “Nyquist, Nyquist, Nyquist!” Hey, we have a fine colt as well!

For the first time in five attempts, Exaggerator got the best of Nyquist to take the second jewel of the American Triple Crown.   How we got there is a tale of virtually everything going right for Exaggerator and about everything going wrong for Nyquist.

First of all, it rained in Baltimore.  All through the night preceding the Preakness and on and off during the day.  The track was sloppy and I suspect the only sunny (at least in terms of disposition), bright, and happy locale on the backside for Preakness connections was around Exaggerator’s stall.  I’ve rarely seen a colt (maybe Tonalist) that relishes, devours, and seemingly moves like a hydroplane over such muddy conditions.

Next, sitting in Exaggerator’s saddle was Kent Desormeaux, already a two-time winner of the Preakness Stakes (Real Quiet, Big Brown) who years ago was based in Maryland and had been a champion jockey on that circuit.  Perhaps, besides the colt’s innate talent, the most important asset in his success is trainer Keith Desormeaux who truly figured out the key to Exaggerator’s most effective running style–let him sit well off the pace and then unleash him for that one long sustained run he’s so capable of.  Earlier in his career when Exaggerator was running on or near the lead (he ran on the lead in winning last year’s Delta Jackpot Stakes) it didn’t appear to me that he could win past much more than a mile or a mile and a sixteenth.  Then came the Santa Anita Derby where he dropped back and sat well off a blistering pace up front and then in a flash kicked it in gear and blew by everyone to win at a mile and an eighth, finishing six-plus lengths clear.  He replicated that style in the Derby and although he didn’t win, he closed on Nyquist as close as he’d ever come, showing the new style as effective on the dry surface as the wet.  Generally, trainers won’t try and adjust a race horse’s running style, particularly going into such significant races.  But Keith, I’m sure with Kent’s input, made the adjustment and it has paid huge rewards.

Then there was the beautiful ride Kent put on Exaggerator.  After the gates opened he let him drop back and gather himself into a nice rhythm, placed him near the rail and watched the meltdown Nyquist had got caught up in, in front of him.  They were much closer to the leaders as early as the the Pimlico backstretch.  In an interview, when asked about whether he was concerned with this earlier than expected move, Keith indicated he was wondering whether it was “Exaggerator’s will or Kent’s will” to be there at that moment.  He quickly realized that Exaggerator had taken Kent there.  And I’ll add at that moment I was delighted and knew how this race was going to end because  Exaggerator had got there and was galloping on with the greatest of ease.  From that point all that was needed was for Kent to ease him off the rail, lock in, and get the jump on a tiring target in Nyquist which he did. Only two questions remained: Would Nyquist be able to respond (No) and how far would Exaggerator draw off to the wire?

So as smoothly and well as everything went for Exaggerator, everything unraveled and fell apart for Nyquist, also right out of the gate, where for him the race was essentially lost.  I have ZERO explanation why Mario Gutierrez allowed Nyquist to engage early speedsters Uncle Lino and Awesome Speed.  Neither was going to be able to sustain that pace or run off with the race, but there was Nyquist in the middle of a speed sandwich that, sorry for the awful pun, toasted him.  Pimlico track announcer Dave Rodman called the first quarter in :22.1 a “wicked” pace and the mile split “brutal”; both apt, succinct descriptions and completely unsustainable (Uncle Lino finished 7th by 13 1/4 lengths; Awesome Speed 9th by 21 1/2 lengths).  It’s a testament to the quality of horse Nyquist is that he was still hanging on, although weary at the end of the race, for third. Perhaps it was Gutierrez’s intention to replicate his Derby move–getting clear and then taking back off the pace (which I don’t think was as necessary as it was in the large Derby field), but it didn’t happen that way.  Jerry Bailey may well have called it right that yesterday Nyquist got a touch rank and away from Gutierrez and he couldn’t rein him back in.

Further, Nyquist saved no ground throughout the race as this mini match race on the lead occurred near the middle of the track.  Only near the end of the race was he near the rail and then was guided back off both the rail and Exaggerator after he’d been passed. The sloppy track was not an issue for Nyquist outside of possibly fatiguing him faster when coupled with the pace he was attempting to maintain.

And so Exaggerator got the victory in what I think was his best, most polished performance to date.  And I can’t help but think about how tremendous he looked when he arrived at Pimlico following a van ride from Kentucky to Maryland.  When he stepped off the trailer he looked like he owned the place.  Yesterday, he did!

As of this morning the Exaggerator, Nyquist, and yes, fifth-place finisher Lani (if only he’d improve his gate breaks!) are all reported to have come out of the race no worse for wear and are being pointed to the Belmont Stakes, June 11th.  Nyquist will ship out tomorrow morning to begin preparations.  No Triple Crown in play now, but the storyline will be the potential Classic tie-breaking race between the Derby and Preakness champions.  Other horses that may be under consideration: Cherry Wine (who ran a great second, enjoying the mud and crazy pace as well), Brody’s Cause, and Suddenbreakingnews.

Me, I’m calling for rain in New York!

Ready to Roll

Preakness Stakes 141 post positions were drawn about an hour ago.  Eleven are entered.  Here we go–

1.Cherry Wine

2.Uncle Lino

3.Nyquist

4.Awesome Speed

5.Exaggerator

6.Lani

7.Collected

8.Laoban

9.Abiding Star

10.Fellowship

11.Stradavari

Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, has of course been made the prohibitive favorite to continue his unbeaten streak.  The morning line odds for him are 3/5. Since the Derby, Nyquist has put nary a step wrong; he’s maintaining good flesh, a great attitude, and seems completely at ease at Pimlico.

Exaggerator arrived at Pimlico Sunday and he was a complete vision as he walked off the van.  He and Lani are the only other Derby vets to continue on into the Preakness.  The remaining eight horses will be new entrants to the Triple Crown fray.  I’ll tell you as much as I can about them and let you draw your own conclusions; personally, I don’t believe any of them will be a significant threat to Nyquist, although they could crack the place or show position.

Cherry Wine was third in his last start in the Bluegrass Stakes.  He didn’t have enough points to crack the top 20 to run in the Derby.  Uncle Lino was second to Derby 10th-place finisher Mor Spirit in the 1 1/16-mile Robert Lewis Stakes in February, third to Exaggerator in the Santa Anita Derby, and the winner of the California Chrome Stakes at Los Alamitos Race Course.  Awesome Speed spent the winter running at Gulfstream Park in Florida. He was fourth behind Mohaymen in the Fountain of Youth Stakes in late February and won the Frederico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico early last month. He’s a speedy colt; whether he can carry that speed the full mile and three sixteenths Saturday remains to be seen.

Collected is Bob Baffert’s entry.  His horses always come prepared, but I doubt he takes out Nyquist.  He won the Lexington Stakes (1 1/16 miles at Keeneland) in his last out.  Laoban was another “also eligible” for the Derby.  He was fourth last out in the Bluegrass Stakes (which was won by Brody’s Cause).  Prior to that he was second, after leading the race until the final few strides, to Shagaf (who was pulled up and did not finish the Derby) in the Gotham Stakes.

Abiding Star I have not seen run.  According to records, he won the Parx Derby at Parx Race Course in Pennsylvania. Fellowship was fourth last out in the Pat Day Mile on the Kentucky Derby undercard; he ran third in each of the Gulfstream Park Derby preps–Holy Bull, Fountain of Youth, and Florida Derby (behind Nyquist). Finally, there’s Stradivari. The Preakness will be his fourth lifetime start (foundation…) and first stakes race.  He’s entering the race off of two wins by daylight in a maiden stakes at Gulfstream and an allowance race at Keeneland last month.

I still believe Exaggerator will be Nyquist’s chief competition on Saturday and he may be getting a boost.  If you thought last year’s Preakness was wet in a last minute monsoon downpour, prepare for more of the same this Saturday as the forecast for Baltimore and Pimlico is 100 percent rain, all day. In spite of his outstanding effort over the dry Churchill Downs strip, I still believe Exaggerator is a better racehorse over a sloppy track.  Nyquist ran over a wet track in the Florida Derby and handled it perfectly. But I think the conditions might draw these two more even or equal for the day.  I don’t think a wet track does any of the other entrants any real favors.

Lani ran a great race in the Derby; better than his ninth-place finish might indicate. He broke poorly from the gate and was well behind from the start, but made up a lot of ground and put 11 other colts behind him at the wire.  I have no idea how he might handle off going and don’t think he’s likely to beat Nyquist, but with a better break I think he could be more in the mix.

Saturday’s race should be an interesting one and I’m thinking Nyquist either bakes the rest of the field or is more closely pursued or being closed upon even more rapidly by Exaggerator.  Or there’s the possibility that Exaggerator repeats his Santa Anita Derby tour de force in the slop and no one keeps pace.  But I won’t be at all surprised if around 7:15 Saturday evening  we’re not all marking our calendars for June 11, 2016 and another potential Triple Crown run.

Post time Saturday: 6:45 p.m. on NBC. Safe trips for all.  Enjoy!!