There are several key differences between the fields for the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago and the Preakness Stakes on Saturday. Are they enough to change the outcome?
There was little early speed in the Derby field, and there's a lot in the Preakness. Eight of the 11 Preakness entrants are new shooters who did not run for the roses. Finally, the National Weather Service is predicting an inch of rain Saturday afternoon in Baltimore, making it likely that the Pimlico track will be sloppy as opposed to the fast track at Churchill.
These differences, however, may be the kind of straws you grasp at when you're trying to talk yourself into a long shot. The truth remains that Nyquist and Exaggerator, the 1-2 Derby finishers, tower over this Preakness field and, if anything, probably both will benefit from the changes in circumstance.
Their virtues are obvious. Nyquist is unbeaten in eight starts and has won five Grade 1 stakes, which is four more than the rest of the field combined. He has not been worse than second in the early going of seven of those races but showed in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall that he can rally from off the pace. He was able to relax behind a fast and loose front-runner in the Derby and should be able to do the same while sitting off of a multitude of inferior front-runners in the Preakness. He hasn't raced on a sloppy track, but his pedigree (by Uncle Mo and a Forestry mare) and his performance on a "good" track in the Florida Derby suggest that he won't mind it a bit.
Exaggerator has been unable to beat Nyquist in four tries but has been closer each time and comes off two outstanding efforts: a runaway victory over a sloppy track in the Santa Anita Derby and a second in Louisville, where he passed 13 horses and made up a dozen lengths on Nyquist in the final 6 furlongs. Nyquist will and should be favored to beat him a fifth time, but Exaggerator may provide better betting value as the 3-1 second choice than Nyquist at 3-5.
The next most plausible winner of the race is Stradivari, a very talented colt who is making just his fourth career start and his first start in a stakes race of any kind. He comes off a 14½-length victory at Keeneland last month that earned a gaudy Beyer Speed Figure of 100, but he was facing overmatched allowance horses. He would have to be a special colt to beat the top two here, which is not impossible, but he seems like an underlay as the 8-1 third choice on the morning line.
The field's only other graded stakes winners beyond the two favorites are hard to recommend. Lani, the United Arab Emirates Derby winner, had some issues while running ninth in the Derby but nothing suggests he'll be able to make up 10 lengths on Nyquist. Collected, the Sham and Lexington stakes winner, has never faced the cream of the division and seems more like a solid Grade 3 colt than a potential classic winner.
The horse I'm going to try to get on the board at a big price is Cherry Wine, a genuine finisher whose sole slop effort was a 9½-length victory as a 2-year-old. His best efforts are well behind the two favorites, but he will be charging late past a bunch of tired ones. The Derby was packed with closers, but Exaggerator and Cherry Wine look like the only ones in the Preakness.
So, I'll call the race Exaggerator, Nyquist, Cherry Wine and Stradivari, in that order. The Preakness is the last leg of several multirace wagers, and my plan is to try to get to the Preakness alive with Nyquist and Exaggerator only.
The Exaggerator camp deserves credit for running in the Preakness, bucking the too-common trend of skipping the race to await the Belmont. The persistent notion that horses run better with many weeks between starts and that the Preakness is too soon after the Derby is nonsense, contradicted by the successes in Baltimore by one Derby winner after another.
If Nyquist wins, here we go again with another Triple Crown bid, just a year after the first successful one in 37 years. If Exaggerator wins, we might get something nearly as rare: a showdown between the Derby winner and the Preakness winner in the Belmont.
It also will be interesting to see what kind of narrative NBC Sports will try to weave around the sport during its Preakness telecast. Two weeks ago, it was said that American Pharoah's Triple Crown had ushered in a renaissance in the sport, prompting increases in handle, television ratings and the size of the foal crop. (Never mind that the 2016 crop was bred before the 2015 Triple Crown.) But that didn't pan out when ratings and handle on this year's Derby declined rather than increased.
Here's my premise: There's going to be a good horse race, many people will watch and wager, and the precise size of the crowd, handle and Nielsen ratings will signify absolutely nothing.