Dream for Nyquist, trainer O'Neill, sinks in Pimlico mud

BALTIMORE -- They cracked jokes and exchanged fist bumps, so relaxed and confident in their horse that at one point, millionaire owner Paul Reddam, plopped on a plastic bin, stifled a yawn. This was 90 minutes before the Preakness -- the race that would either set Nyquist up to follow in the gilded horseshoes of American Pharoah or start the clock on another Triple Crown drought -- and yet for Nyquist's team, there was simply no reason to worry.

The camp believed it had the best horse in the race and boldly said as much all week.

And so at 5:45 p.m. on Saturday, when Reddam, trainer Doug O'Neill and O'Neill's brother, Dennis, huddled up just a few steps away from Nyquist's stall, it was more pep rally than strategy session.

"I don't worry,'' Doug O'Neill said.

"Don't worry,'' Reddam said. "There's no need to.''

Perhaps, then, we should add amnesia to the legacy of American Pharoah. The Triple Crown winner's rush to immortality went off so smoothly, effortlessly even, that it apparently erased from memory the struggles of the previous 37 years, replacing the long time air of inevitability and despair with the strangest of horse racing outlooks -- optimism.

Somewhere, could it happen for Nyquist gave way to it had to happen.

Except in horse racing, the only sure thing is there is no sure thing. The best horse does not always win, and the sport is not regularly rewarded with a happy ending.

Exaggerator, runner-up to Nyquist at the Kentucky Derby and unable to beat his nemesis in four tries, charged up the rail before making a quick turn for the outside, winning the race by 3½ lengths, with Nyquist fading to third behind Cherry Wine.

Within minutes, O'Neill, trailed by his wife and two children, hastily descended the steps from his viewing area. As he reached the last stair, two women, covered in plastic ponchos on the rain-soaked day, screamed, 'We did it! We did it!' in celebration of Exaggerator's victory.

Only 30 minutes earlier, the cheers were all for O'Neill. As he followed his horse, trailed by an entourage that grew by the minute and eventually included a pro hockey player and ex-NBAer, fans screamed his name and snapped his picture, some already making plans for the Belmont Stakes. "See you in New York,'' more than one yelled.

Nyquist still might race at the Belmont, but it won't be as a horse in the hunt for a Triple Crown.

"It's a bummer to lose,'' O'Neill said. "I had been envisioning a Triple Crown-type story here, but it wasn't meant to be.''

And now horse racing will find out whether or not it can sustain its newfound interest without the allure of a Triple Crown.

A record crowd of 135,256 filed through the gates at Pimlico, defying a dismal weather forecast and enduring a drizzle that turned into a steady rain by post time. It's impossible, of course, to know exactly why people came to the race, but Maryland Jockey Club owner Sal Sinatra said last week that he certainly believed American Pharoah's historic run turned casual fans on to the sport.

Now, with no Triple Crown on the line, will a possible Exaggerator-Nyquist rubber match be enough to attract people to New York and the Belmont?

More troublesome, the would-be feel-good Nyquist story already is being replaced by questions about the toll racing takes on horses after two horses died earlier in the day after racing at Pimlico Race Course. Homeboykris, a winner in the first race of the day, collapsed on his way back to the barn, the 9-year-old gelding suffering what trainers suspected was a heart attack. Three races later, Pramedya suffered a fracture in her front leg and was euthanized on the track. Pramedya was owned by the same people who owned Barbaro, the Kentucky Derby winner who broke down at the Preakness 10 years ago.

PETA immediately released a statement, calling on the owners of both horses to release their veterinary records.

The impact of all of the above will be determined in the days and weeks leading up to June 11, when the Belmont Stakes is run.

There's no denying, though, what might have been had Nyquist held on. The same horse who, despite an 8-0 record, carried more than a few skeptics into the Kentucky Derby, arrived in Baltimore as a rock star. Nyquist's barn was a beehive of activity all week, tour groups and fans waltzing by in the hopes of getting a glimpse at the horse. On race day, the calm before the storm -- literally, as the rains didn't really start in earnest until about 5:30 p.m. -- quickly gave way as the clock slowly and steadily inched toward post time. At 4:30 p.m., the former Indiana policemen charged with serving as security and Nyquist 's "bodyguards" idled in folding chairs around the barn. Within an hour, the barn was stuffed to overflowing. Former Kentucky basketball player Rex Chapman arrived, as did Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson.

More than once, the security folks cautioned people to watch their backs, oblivious as horses were walked around the barn behind them.

For all the noise and expectation, O'Neill was the picture of California calm. He said he spent most of the day in Reddam's tent on the front side, intent to enjoy the day rather than wrap himself up with worry. He doled out fist bumps to anyone and everyone, even giving a gentle tap on the nose to one of the horses in the barn and another to his son, Dan, right before he went on live television.

At 6 p.m., Nyquist finally emerged from his stall and, after a few walks around, headed to the stakes barn. O'Neill stood in the rain waiting for the all clear to begin the walk over to the paddock, posing for pictures and shaking hands. At one point, Chapman snapped a shot of O'Neill with his children and Reddam.

"My adopted family,'' Reddam joked.

"Hey, we finally have a rich uncle,'' O'Neill deadpanned.

The trainer admitted to butterflies in his stomach, but not the nervous kind.

"I'm just excited,'' he said. "I just want to have a good, clean race. I want that for everyone.''

After saddling Nyquist in the wildly crowded indoor paddock, O'Neill made his way to the turf track and spoke with jockey Mario Gutierrez. He reminded the jockey that the track was playing pretty fast but said he wanted Nyquist to go out aggressively anyway.

"If we win the first turn,'' O'Neill said, "we win the race.''

Nyquist did win the first turn. Just not the race.

O'Neill refused to take any offered excuses -- no, the sloppy track didn't matter, he said, and neither did the two-week turnaround from the Derby. He conceded the early speed might have played a part in things -- Nyquist raced to the quarter-mile pole in a blistering 22.38 -- but if there was a pit sitting in his stomach, having watched his dream disappear in the mud, O'Neill didn't share it.

"They're not machines,'' O'Neill said. "Being 8-for-8, we didn't think he would ever lose, but they all lose one time or another. He ran a great race, and as far as I'm concerned, he's still a winner.''

And then O'Neill, his shoes caked in mud and his hair dripping with rain, walked off the track to go see his horse.

As he left, the public address announcer welcomed Exaggerator to the winner's circle.

So there was a happy ending at the racetrack on Saturday.

Just not the one most people had hoped for.