Nyquist carries hopes of a sport into Preakness

Mario Gutierrez rides Nyquist into the Preakness as a heavy favorite. AP Photo/Garry Jones

BALTIMORE -- The forecast calls for rain on Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, and not in the half-committed partly cloudy/partly sunny vernacular of the typical weatherperson. No, there's a 100 percent chance of the wet stuff by the latest calculations, with perhaps as much as an inch expected to fall.

Which is a perfect meteorological metaphor for the Preakness. The drab thorn between the roses, the Preakness is horse racing's middle child -- oft overlooked, if not altogether ignored. The Triple Crown's first-out-of-the-gate Kentucky Derby offers anticipation, and the last-leg Belmont Stakes a possible climactic finish.

The Preakness?

It's a great party.

"I always called it the fun leg of the Triple Crown,'' trainer Bob Baffert said.

Except simmering beneath the fun and away from the infield -- which remains entertaining even absent the running of the port-a-potties and man-punches-horse escapades of the late 1990s and early 2000s -- there's a unique tension to the Baltimore bacchanal, particularly this year.

A year ago a viewing, reading and general public fell in love with horse racing for six weeks, transfixed as American Pharoah broke a 37-year-old jinx to win the Triple Crown. The horse, so beloved he won the online poll as Sports Illustrated's sports critter of the year, galloped off into the sunset in October, leaving the gate open for the next horse to follow.

That horse is Nyquist, an undefeated bay colt out of California who quieted critics and proved the bettors right, winning the Kentucky Derby in impressive fashion.

But with American Pharoah's glorious run down Belmont Park's homestretch still fresh in people's minds, it is no longer enough to be just the Derby winner. The bar, for 37 years viewed as almost unattainable, now has been reset -- and only Nyquist can soar over it.

Which leads us here, to the race in the middle.

Quite simply and quite obviously, Nyquist can't win a Triple Crown if he doesn't win the Preakness.

"You know, it's a pretty pivotal race,'' deadpanned Sal Sinatra, the general manager of the Maryland Jockey Club.

A star in the stalls

Armed with a poster and a pen, a fan stopped Baffert outside of the stakes barns on Friday, looking for the trainer to ink his name to the picture of American Pharoah.

Baffert, here with Collected who was 10-1 on the morning line, happily obliged and then went along his way unbothered, mingling with the media and horsemen.

Two weeks ago he couldn't walk three steps without being stopped. His barn, housing Mor Spirit, who went off as a 12-1 shot at the Kentucky Derby, was the main attraction all week. Unable to catch a glimpse of American Pharoah, fans instead made do with the horse's trainer, asking him to pose for selfies and sign an assortment of trinkets bearing the Triple Crown winner's image.

The crowds have moved on now. American Pharoah fever (phever?) has given way to Nyquist noise.

Typically the Kentucky Derby winner is housed in Barn 40 at Pimlico, the first and most centrally located of the stalls. Trainer Doug O'Neill opted to move Nyquist away from the traffic headed to the track, tucking the favorite in the far back corner of the stakes barns.

The fans found him anyway. Some were part of tour groups brought by in packs of 15 to 20 on Thursday morning, others just found their way there on their own They took pictures and asked questions, wondering if the "big horse" had come out. When he did take the track for his morning workout, the fans lined the rail -- in some places two-deep -- armed with camera phones as he galloped by.

That is how it was a year ago, Baffert remembered.

"People want to take a look at him because he's the Derby winner,'' he said. "It's, 'Oh that's what he looks like.' They're finally paying attention, and they just want to get a look at him.''

But the Preakness is also the brink of the Triple Crown, where curiosity gives way to hope and -- if all goes well on Saturday -- to hunger. It's that way, of course, for just one horse. Along with jockey Mario Gutierrez, Nyquist will carry the hopes of an entire sport on his back when he breaks from the No. 3 post.

Some have questioned, absent the drama of the drought, whether people will care as much this year. If the projected Preakness attendance numbers offer any indication, that's a no. Sinatra said earlier this week that most areas were already sold out. Rather than hearing people say they're bored by the thought of another Triple Crown, he's hearing more, 'We missed last year, we better get there to see this one.'"

But what happens here at Pimlico will undeniably impact what happens next.

History has proved as much.

Since Belmont Park expanded in 1968, only twice has attendance at the Belmont Stakes crested above 70,000 when there was no possibility of a Triple Crown winner. In 2001, 73,857 pushed through the gates to watch Point Given cruise to victory. That Baffert-trained horse was arguably the best horse of the year, the favorite upset and done in by a questionable ride on a fast track at the Derby, but an easy Preakness winner.

In 2012, I'll Have Another, O'Neill's Derby/Preakness winner, scratched the day before the race with a tendon injury, leaving plenty of paying customers holding Belmont tickets. More than 85,000 attended that day.

On the flip side, the only times the Belmont has drawn fewer than 70,000 with a Triple Crown on the line was in 1973 with Secretariat, and in 1978 when Affirmed outdueled rival Alydar. Horse racing was a different animal then, wildly more popular and accustomed to big crowds on a regular basis in '73, and perhaps plagued by Triple Crown fatigue in 1978 (Affirmed was the third winner in five years).

All of which is a long-winded, statistic-driven way of explaining just how important this Preakness is.

"If you win this leg, then it's like you're running for office,'' Baffert said. "Everything you ever did, you'll read about it over the next three weeks. Once American Pharoah hit the eighth pole, I remember thinking, 'Oh boy. Here it comes.' I had never thought about winning it before that. I remember my wife asking, 'Does he have a chance to win the Triple Crown?' And I said, 'Well, yeah, if he wins.'"

How to carry a burden

Theoretically, then, Team O'Neill ought to be feeling the heat and wearing the weight of expectations.

Except the Doug O'Neill who walked around the barns on Thursday, hugging old friends and joking during a news conference, seemed anything but nervous. He has said that he feels a responsibility to "share" his horse more with the public, conscious of how American Pharoah's camp helped generate a buzz for both horse and sport by making him so accessible.

Nyquist, consequently, has a Twitter account (@TheNyquistHorse). He recently "tweeted" that he stood in Gate 3, where he will break from in the Preakness, when he schooled at Pimlico -- and O'Neill has welcomed all gawkers who come to take a peek at his horse.

O'Neill also has the luxury of being extremely confident in the animal he has been given. Since arriving the Monday after the Kentucky Derby, Nyquist has settled in nicely. The quick two-week turnaround that sours plenty of trainers on the Preakness has seemingly not affected the horse at all.

Defying his usual "say little of note" approach, O'Neill actually went so far as to declare himself "optimistic" about Nyquist's chances on Saturday.

"It's hard to explain, but as much as it seems like it should be more nerve-wracking, it's more calming and relaxing because I'm around such a special horse like Nyquist,'' O'Neill said. "He handles the pressure so well -- all the cameras and all the fans who want to see him. It rubs off on all of us. We're able to enjoy the journey."

A journey that will be much more enjoyable for many more people if it continues another three weeks.