The Preakness is always run in a fishbowl when the Kentucky Derby winner is front and center -- especially when the Derby winner is an undefeated champion with one leg up on the Triple Crown.
And so it was Saturday when Nyquist and jockey Mario Gutierrez could not sustain the pressured momentum of a hot first quarter and half and ended up beaten conclusively by their former wingman, Exaggerator, and Pimlico homeboy Kent Desormeaux.
Let the flogging begin.
"It was the worst ride," said the estimable Andy Beyer on Steve Byk's "At the Races" radio show Monday morning. "A ride that ranks right up there with Ron Franklin on Spectacular Bid in the Belmont as one of the most horrible rides in the Triple Crown."
Certainly, the 19-year-old Franklin's decision to gun and go with a long shot on the Belmont backstretch in 1979 contributed to Spectacular Bid's loss to Coastal. Beyer also cited Stewart Elliott's midrace Belmont burst aboard Smarty Jones in 2004 as the reason they were caught by Birdstone.
But even though Gutierrez made an early, unforced tactical error that set in motion events that led to Nyquist finishing 3½ lengths and a nose behind Exaggerator at the end of 1 3/16 miles on a muddy racetrack, he still must take a backseat to these beauties. If that ride was "one of the most horrible," in Beyer's parlance, how would you describe ...
* Calvin Borel, flummoxed by the alien layout of Belmont Park, hitting the gas too soon on the turn with Mine That Bird in 2009 to take the lead, only to surrender in the final yards.
* Bill Shoemaker, already a Derby winner with Swaps, misjudging the Churchill Downs finish line aboard Gallant Man in 1957 and losing by a nose to Iron Liege.
* Manuel Ycaza, on favored Ridan, throwing a desperate elbow into John Rotz nearing the end of the 1962 Preakness, thereby assuring himself of a disqualification even if Rotz and Greek Money hadn't beaten them a nose.
* Herb Fisher, who had Head Play off the rail late in the 1933 Derby, reaching over in a panic to grab Don Meade, who was slipping through inside with Brokers Tip. With no help from either a photo finish or patrol film, the judges gave the bout to Brokers Tip.
The Nyquist team members -- including owner Paul Reddam and trainer Doug O'Neill -- have fallen on their assorted swords in taking the blame for Gutierrez carrying out a flawed game plan. That is good of them and bodes well for Gutierrez keeping the mount when Nyquist bounces back from the illness that has him temporarily sidelined.
But it also says something about the idea of overthinking a horse race. The variables in a contest such as the Preakness are boundless. It is impossible to account for them all, and to address only a few -- as did the Nyquist team -- is to leave a horse and jockey handcuffed to a strategy that could prove to be without merit from the moment the gates open. Race-riding at the Triple Crown level is not algebra, it is art. Preparation is fine, but improvisation is the key.
It is Chris McCarron, attuned to a perfect clock, going from first to last to first aboard Touch Gold to stun Silver Charm in the 1997 Belmont. It is Steve Cauthen, in extremis against Alydar at the end of the 1978 Belmont, using a left-handed stick on Affirmed for the first time and getting the job done. It is Ron Turcotte, aboard the greatest turn runner in the history of the game, shocking the 1973 Preakness field with Secretariat and ending the race around the first bend.
Beyer said the Nyquist team should not have "put their trust in a jockey like this instead of one of the big boys," referring to Gutierrez.
But it does not matter that Gutierrez is not Turcotte, Cauthen or McCarron, or that Nyquist is neither Affirmed nor Secretariat, nor even Touch Gold. What they should have done is put their trust in the jockey who had won eight of eight aboard their horse, and let the chips fall where they may. Because the chips will always fall.
Trainer Buddy Raines had it right when he spoke briefly with Rotz before sending him out with Greek Money at Pimlico 54 years ago.
"Johnny," Raines said, "ride him like you own him."
Oh, and watch out for Ycaza.
Redemption in Californian
When you fall, if you can, you get back on the horse, which is what Gutierrez did Sunday at Santa Anita when he won the Grade 2 Californian Stakes aboard Second Summer at 10-1.
Trainer Peter Eurton was asked whether he was worried Gutierrez might be suffering from an emotional Preakness hangover.
"We were a little concerned about it because we didn't know where his mindset would be," Eurton said. "But his attitude was very positive. And he rode an unbelievable race for us, moving when he needed to, and the horse responded."
Second Summer is a 4-year-old son of Belmont winner Summer Bird who has reacted to being gelded and returning to the main track with three wins and a second in his past four starts, along with steadily improving numbers. The 1-length score in the 9-furlong Californian sets him up well for the $500,000 Gold Cup at Santa Anita on June 25, and Gutierrez will be back aboard. It's not the Preakness, but it'll do.