Nyquist, who had won the Kentucky Derby two weeks earlier, came blazing out of the gate in the 2016 Preakness. Going head-to-head with longshot Uncle Lino, Nyquist blasted his first quarter-mile in 22.38 seconds. And with that, it already was fairly clear that there would be no Triple Crown bid in 2016.
The Preakness generally is run at a fast pace, considering it's a 1 3/16-mile, two-turn race for 3-year-olds in May. But there is fast, and there is too fast, and Nyquist's contested opening quarter was the fastest first fraction ever posted in 141 years of Preakness history.
Things didn't get any better. Around the clubhouse turn and down the backstretch, Nyquist had gotten the better of Uncle Lino, but to do so, he had run a second quarter-mile in 23.18 seconds. And that was it. Even before he lost the lead, Nyquist was running out of fuel. His historically fast first quarter and faster-than-par second quarter led to a third quarter-mile in 25.41 seconds, which was very slow by third-quarter Preakness standards.
The victorious Exaggerator didn't even have to run especially fast the last half-mile to win, and one can see how Cherry Wine, who never has factored even in a mid-major race since that day, was able to finish second.
That was last year, and last year was a radical outlier in terms of raw early speed. (Important note: In going through Preakness charts, one is using the crudest of analytic tools, raw times, but they will suffice for these purposes.) It is not easy projecting the pace in a race - such as Saturday's running of the Preakness. Many horses are capable of running faster fractions than their past performances suggest if they are asked for early speed, and who knows when a horse's connections will choose to change tactics?
From at least the surface appearance of Saturday's race, however, this will not be a 2016-type year. Neither is there a total early-pace void, and perhaps the Preakness will unfold at a standard tempo. What's that exactly?
Since 2000, the average opening fractions in the Preakness have been 23.24 -- 46.75 -- 1:11.21. Looking at that quarter by quarter, it goes: 23.24 -- 23.41 -- 24.46.
Six times since 2000, the first quarter-mile has gone in less than 23 seconds. Last year, Nyquist was victimized not only by his first quarter but also by his second quarter. In 2015, American Pharoah went in 22.90 -- 23.59 -- 24.93. He slowed dramatically over a sloppy, tiring track and still won by seven lengths.
In 2011, Shackleford was a half-length off a demanding 22.69 first quarter, but it's not just the first fraction that determines the race shape. Look at the next two quarters: 24.18 and 25.14, both considerably slower than the recent par. No wonder Shackleford was able to hold off Derby winner Animal Kingdom, who still was 12th with three furlongs to run.
In 2010, the fractions were 22.91 -- 23.46 -- 24.85. That's only barely a sub-23-second quarter. The second fraction was about par, the third slower than par. First Dude set the pace and held second. Lookin At Lucky, less than three lengths behind halfway through, got the win.
In 2007, man, they were flying. Xchanger whistled the opening quarter in 22.83 and then turned in a sub-23 second quarter, too, in 22.92. This was the fastest half-mile Preakness pace, 45.75, in recent history. Hard Spun wound up third, beaten by four lengths, but he sat just off those fractions and took over when Xchanger stopped past the half-mile pole. Hard Spun ran his third quarter in a faster-than-par 24.05. No wonder he had little response when Curlin and Street Sense caught up, but Hard Spun still ran a wonderful race to finish third.
The other sub-23 since 2000 was in 2002, when War Emblem was passed by Menacing Dennis' 22.87 and 23.23 pace. Dennis' third quarter was a decent 24.40, but then he fell back to finish 10th. War Emblem was an underrated Derby-Preakness winner.
How about the slow side of things? The slowest Preakness pace since 2000 came in 2013, when Oxbow went in 23.94 -- 24.66 -- 24.66, which explains why Oxbow won and near-the-lead stalker Itsmyluckyday ran second.
Bodemeister also got off to a slow pace in 2012, going in 23.79 -- 23.89 -- 24.04. I'll Have Another was just close enough to the front, waiting in fourth, to nail Bodemeister at the wire.
The 2001 Preakness was the only edition since 2000 in which a slower-than-par pace for the first three-quarters of a mile yielded off-the-pace top finishers. The fractions were 23.84 -- 23.48 -- 24.54, but Point Given came from ninth to win and A.P. Valentine came from seventh to finish second.
So go ahead, watch the clock. Seeing something like a 23.45 quarter and 47 half in most 1 3/16-mile races would make one assume that the closers will be swooping down, but on Saturday, those splits probably mean the front-enders -- if they're the ones we think they are -- will be just fine.
How will the early pace of the race shake out? A quick look, horse by horse, and then a synopsis.
Multiplier (closer): Forget about it. No early pace at all.
Cloud Computing (presser): Careful. He hasn't broken well in two of his three starts, and in the other race, the Gotham, he raced quite close to quick splits. It's hard to see him on the lead, but it's also hard to see jockey Javier Castellano being too passive from an inside draw. Most likely to take up a tracking position just behind the leaders.
Hence (closer): Does possess some early speed, but it wasn't working to use it early, and Hence's late-running style won the Sunland Derby. He's coming from behind.
Always Dreaming (lead or press): Everyone knows that the best asset in dirt racing is controllable speed, and that's what the Derby winner has. He could go in 22 flat if that was desired, but remember, he was inside and behind State of Honor around the first turn in the Derby before being switched out into the clear. He can be part of a quick pace, but he does not need to get involved if things turn heated.
Classic Empire (press or stalk): Tricky case. Does he still have the early gas that had him pressing strong splits last fall in the Breeders' Futurity and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile? Maybe. Trouble in his last two races kept him from being closer to the front, but there's a nagging feeling that Classic Empire is not the same sharp horse now that he was at 2. The guess is that he proves to be more of a stalker than a presser Saturday.
Gunnevera (closer): Next, please.
Term of Art (closer, but...): Blinkers on. That equipment change can help bring out a horse's speed, but he doesn't appear to have much in him.
Senior Investment (closer): No early pace. Simple as that.
Lookin At Lee (closer): Always behind by double-digit lengths at the first call. Clear-cut case.
Conquest Mo Money (speed, but...): He is not cut from the same cloth as some of the really fast-paced Preakness runners since 2000. He's a forward horse, for sure, but his connections never even sprinted him, and he hasn't been the first-call leader in any of his five starts. Also, what one notices at Sunland Park, the site of his first four races, is how often one sees 22s and 45s in two-turn races; such splits there mean less than they would at most venues.
What do we have? Six dead closers, for starters, which leaves only four potential early-pace players. If one guesses that Cloud Computing won't be sent and winds up behind, and that Classic Empire's pace-pressing days are behind him, that leaves two "speed" horses who are not totally dedicated speed horses.
Put everything together, and there's something like a 75 percent chance that the pace comes up average to slow. Advantage: front-enders -- and for the Derby winner, perhaps the race shape about which his connections have always been dreaming.