Nyquist ran courageously in loss

BALTIMORE. -- It was a little weird, coming into this Preakness on Saturday. So many people thought Nyquist's march toward an attempted sweep of the Triple Crown series at Belmont Park on June 11 was going to be easy, a fait accompli, and I must include myself in this, as well.

Even crusty curmudgeons are susceptible to rookie mistakes.

Nyquist, we thought, was going to remain undefeated through the Preakness and shoot not only for racing immortality in the Belmont, but also try to complete the first back-to-back sweep of the Triple Crown series since Affirmed followed Seattle Slew in 1978 -- and also become the first undefeated winner of the Triple Crown since Seattle Slew in 1977.

But nothing -- nothing -- is easy in the Triple Crown. Ever.

Many of us were probably guilty of letting our Triple Crown guard down after American Pharoah last year became the first to sweep the series in 37 years. And after as fine a colt as Nyquist could not even make it to the Belmont alive for a chance at the Triple Crown -- and he is still a very fine horse despite his defeat on Saturday -- it just makes you appreciate all the more what American Pharoah accomplished last year.

That said, let's talk about this Preakness. Exaggerator was clearly and decidedly best on the day. I mean, this horse has gears, and I personally love horses with gears. When Exaggerator finished second in the Kentucky Derby, he came from way back off a fast early pace. But when he won the Preakness on Saturday, he sat closer to a pace that was also fast -- extremely fast. And after Exaggerator made that inside-out move into the stretch to overtake the front-runners, and then lugged in and seemed to lose focus, he got himself together again and ran away late.

The other thing that you have to like about Exaggerator is every time he was knocked to the mat by Nyquist -- and he was knocked to the mat the four times he previously raced against him -- he got back up and tried again. This time, Exaggerator didn't get knocked to the mat. His perseverance paid off, and you have to respect the try in him.

But without taking a single thing away from Exaggerator's Preakness victory, it also must be noted that everything fell his way on Saturday, from the weather to the way the race was run.

Exaggerator is simply a superior wet-track performer -- trainer Keith Desormeaux admitted as much in the post-Preakness news conference. He won the Delta Downs Jackpot in the mud, turned in what was then the best race of his career when he romped in the Santa Anita Derby on a very sloppy track and even in the Kentucky Derby, he caught a surface that had some standing water on it in spots after a brief, but fierce prerace storm.

So overnight and early morning precipitation in Baltimore, and then a steady late afternoon rain, resulted in a sloppy Pimlico surface that was tailor made for Exaggerator -- as much, if not more so, than any other Preakness entrant.

And then there was the Preakness early pace of 22.38 and 46.56 seconds, over a surface that was anything but fast from a standpoint of time. This clip was simply unsustainable for anyone involved in it. This played directly to the strength of the closers, and there wasn't any debate that Exaggerator was the best closer in the Preakness, and by miles.

The Preakness's early pace is the reason why Nyquist remains a fine racehorse, even in defeat. Nyquist, the 3-5 favorite, dueled on that pace with overmatched horses you needed a search party to find at the finish. Uncle Lino, who dueled directly with Nyquist, finished 9¾ lengths behind him, and was vanned off. Awesome Speed and Collected, the other two who were closest to the early pace, finished 12½ and 13¼ lengths behind Nyquist.

Nyquist had a similar trip when he won the Derby. He was right with a fast early pace, and survived it to win decisively. Meanwhile, the others who were close to that pace in Kentucky tired to be either soundly or distantly beaten -- or not even finish. But Nyquist couldn't withstand two trips like this in only two weeks. That was just way too much to ask, and he understandably weakened. But I give him lots of credit for only just losing the place by a nose to the useful, and perfectly set up, Cherry Wine, and still finishing a half-length in front of the highly regarded Stradivari for third.

Of course, this begs the question as to why Nyquist was given the trip he had in the Preakness. Unless Nyquist was being ridden to explicit instructions, I don't get it. Nyquist is indeed a horse with natural speed. He likes being on or right with the early pace. But what distinguishes him is, he doesn't have to run that way. He proved that when he came from well off the pace, and as wide as the parking lot, to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Heck, he proved it in the Derby, when he let Danzing Candy run off in the middle stages.

Nyquist might have lost for the first time on Saturday, but in many respects, his Preakness performance was more impressive than a handful of his wins.