Preakness Questions Abound...Or do They?

Although Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, the overwhelming 3-5 morning line favorite, looks to be a standout as he takes his eight-race unbeaten streak into the Preakness Stakes, it is still a horse race, with post positions and track conditions playing a role in the scenario and possibly the outcome.

With all horse races, there are always going to be some questions and interesting tidbits of information to keep the handicappers guessing, even if just a little. Nyquist has proven himself to be an extraordinary horse and a winning machine, who has an uncanny knack for getting to the wire first. But to keep everyone on their toes here is a little synopsis on each horse and things to ponder about how the Preakness will unfold.

NYQUIST – Let’s start right at the top and ask ourselves, if Nyquist is going to be beaten, how will the dastardly deed be administered, and by whom? We’ll let the last part go for now and concentrate on the how. If the track comes up sloppy, it should not affect him as much as move some of the others up. The questions that exist are, will his breaking from post 3 with four pace horses outside of him put him in an unfavorable position and is there a possibility of a ‘bounce’ off his career best Thoro-Graph figure in the Derby? Those are pretty much the only things, other than severe traffic problems, that could possibly get him beat, as he simply is the best horse in the race.

Nyquist has a speed/pace horse directly inside him and a speed/pace horse directly outside him, along with three other speed/pace horses lined up next to each other in posts 7, 8, and 9. That is going to require a lot of strategizing by jockey Mario Gutierrez, as he attempts to get a good position with pressure from both sides and a pack of fast horses coming in from the outside. Because of that scenario, there is also the danger of a fast, competitive pace. To Nyquist’s credit, it wouldn’t come as a shock if he takes back and is forced to come from a bit farther back, as was the case in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. But being outside and in the clear is one thing, even with some ground loss. This time he would have to negotiate his way in traffic with the proverbial target on his back, and that’s not what you’d want with a 3-5 favorite, so chances are Gutierrez would try to establish a striking position and hope a suicidal pace doesn’t develop.

Let’s just say that Nyquist is so adaptable he will find a way to work out a good trip and do what he has to to stay out of trouble. That brings us to his Thoro-Graph figures. Going into the Derby, he was no faster than anyone else, and in fact there were several with faster numbers. But Doug O’Neill had him primed for a career peak performance and he jumped 3 1/2 points from the Florida Derby and ran his first ever negative number. Having never run within three points of that figure, is there a possibility of a regression or bounce coming back in two weeks?

From a numbers standpoint, the answer would be ‘yes’ or at least ‘maybe,’ but exceptional horses have a way of overcoming things like numbers, and we have often seen Derby winners actually run better races in the Preakness. And even if he does regress/bounce slightly, that still could be fast enough to win this race.

So, taking all that into consideration, you’ll have to make up your mind if Nyquist is vulnerable, especially at 3-5, or if he is just that much better than the others and will once again find a way to win. 

EXAGGERATOR – “One of these days, Nyquist…Pow! Right in the kisser.” First, trainer Keith Despormeaux is forced to watch his star 2-year-old Swipe finish second four straight times to Nyquist, getting closer each time. Then with Swipe out of commission, Desormeaux is forced to watch his other star, Exaggerator, get beat four times by Nyquist, again getting closer each time.

Now, that Exaggerator has closed the gap on Nyquist from 9 1/2 lengths to three lengths, to 1 1/2 lengths to 1 1/4 lengths, is he ready to score that long-awaited victory and finally get Nyquist out of his trainer’s hair and his nightmares?

Exaggerator, like Nyquist, is a horse I have always admired, and if he is ever to going beat his nemesis it is going to be his extreme versatility, toughness, consistency, and newly discovered come-from-the-clouds running style that gets it done. Also, a sloppy track would certainly not hurt at all, considering his spectacular victory in the mud in the Santa Anita Derby in which he inhaled his field with one of the most dramatic moves seen in years.

Looking at his Thoro-Graph figures, he is on an excellent pattern. In his first start this year, he ran a career best number and then paired up that number in the San Felipe. He then jumped nearly two points and ran another career best number in the Santa Anita Derby and paired up that number in the Kentucky Derby. So, twice he has paired up career high figures, which is impressive. And it’s all been very methodical, with no major leaps; just steady progression and pairing up twice. Therefore, we can deduce that Exaggerator can run a career best number without fear of bouncing. If he takes another minor step forward off his Derby figure, he is right there with anybody, including Nyquist. Remember, he only has 1 1/4 lengths to make up on him.

Exaggerator drew well in post 5, where he likely will again take back and make his newly patented big late run. He is a must in all exotic wagers, especially if the track comes up sloppy.

STRADIVARI – As gifted as this colt may be, it’s asking a lot to try to win a classic race against Nyquist and Exaggerator in his first ever stakes appearance, and with only three career starts under him. But the one big hope he has is that no one has a clue just how good he is. And he could be very special. He’ll have to be.

Drawing post 11 is a concern, because of the configuration of the Pimlico track and having three pace/speed horses coming out of post 9, 8, and 7. With three other pace horses farther down on the inside all looking for position, there is the danger of Stradivari getting hung wide on the first turn. Pimlico has a distinct crown, and post 11 puts a horse more on the outside of the crown, where you don’t want to be. If you do lose ground you then have to contend with the banked first turn, which accentuates the ground loss. So, John Velazquez is going to somehow have to work out a trip for Stradivari and try his best to get as far to the inside as possible.

If he does, then we should find out once and for all just how special this colt is. He’s done everything right since he was a baby, and he’s going to need that good mind to beat Nyquist and Exaggerator and get the kind of trip he’ll need.

His three starts have all shown a significant leap in his Thoro-Graph figures, improving four points each time. His Keeneland allowance score earned him a huge Thoro-Graph figure that is right behind Nyquist’s Derby figure and the equal of Exaggerator’s Derby figure, so you also have to be concerned about a bounce with him. But so far he keeps moving forward.

ABIDING STAR – I have to admit right off the bat that I have such a deep personal attachment to this colt’s pedigree, I am actually in awe of it. Having spent my early days in racing at Darby Dan Farm every year from the late 60s to mid-70s, actually staying on the farm, I am more familiar with Darby Dan-breds than I am my own family tree. So, if you asked me to come up with a dream pedigree I would look no further than that of Abiding Star, whose female family is a Who’s Who of Darby Dan blood.

There are no less than a dozen major Darby Dan influences in Abiding Star’s female family, not to mention being inbred top and bottom to Darby Dan-bred and owned Roberto. As a big follower and believer in the Rasmussen Factor (RF), this female family has inbreeding to not one, but two, Darby Dan mares. The closest is On the Trail, through her daughters Regal Road, third dam of Abiding Star, and Andover Way, dam of his broodmare sire Dynaformer. On the Trail, who is a daughter of another Darby Dan foundation mare Golden Trail, also produced the Roberto colt Darby Creek Road, who won or placed in 11 stakes, set a track record for seven furlongs at Saratoga, was undefeated in three starts against John Henry, and finished third behind Affirmed and Alydar in the Belmont Stakes.

Farther back, you have inbreeding to Darby Dan foundation mare Flower Bowl, the dam of their star full brothers and foundation stallions Graustark and His Majesty, both sons of Darby Dan stallion Ribot.

This is also one of the greatest slop pedigrees you’ll ever see, especially with Graustark and His Majesty, which accounts for Abiding’s Star’s 8 3/4-romp in the slop two races back at Parx, in which he earned a sensational Thoro-Graph figure, the second fastest figure only to Nyquist’s Kentucky Derby. He did bounce off that effort and still won, and if he can come anywhere near that career-high figure, he is right there with any of these horses. With six consecutive victories, and being yet another son of Uncle Mo, he could be a new star in the making.

Trivia question: other than Bob Baffert, name the only Triple Crown winning trainer in this year’s Preakness? The answer is Abiding Star’s trainer Ned Allard, who saddled Mom’s Command to sweep the NYRA Filly Triple Crown in 1985.

AWESOME SPEED – Believe it or not, I actually had this colt ranked as high as No. 9 in my Derby Dozen back in February. This is what I wrote about him: “What I like about this horse is that three races back his early Brisnet figure was his fastest. Two races back, his middle figure was his fastest. And in his last start, his late figure was his fastest. So he looks to be a horse who can excel at any point in the race. His Thoro-Graph number in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes ranks only behind Mohaymen’s Holy Bull among the leading 3-year-olds this year. He’s fast enough to run 6f in 1:09 3/5 at Laurel, just a tick slower than some of the fastest older sprinters in the Frank De Francis Memorial the same day, and he can run a flat mile in 1:35 4/5 at Gulfstream. And he’s bred to run a lot farther than that. His pedigree says he shouldn’t have that kind of sprint speed, which makes him such an intriguing horse as the distances stretch out.”

His Beyer figures are nothing to rave about, and his Thoro-Graph numbers don’t compare to the leading contenders,’ but his last figure was a big improvement off his disappointing Fountain of Youth performance and put him close to the solid figures he earned prior to that.

CHERRY WINE – His past performances say he has a good shot to pick up a piece of it, and he had demonstrated a big move on the far turn, which you need in the Preakness. He just can’t wait as long as he did in the Rebel and Blue Grass Stakes if he’s to have any chance of winning. His Beyer numbers and Thoro-Graph numbers are slow, but he would move up considerably on a sloppy track. He has exceptional slop breeding and was spectacular breaking his maiden in the slop at Churchill Downs. He has crushed his opponents in both his victories and he could make some noise here if he gets a fast pace and, of course, a sloppy track. If the pace is as contentious as it appears, he would have to be given a shot at an upset over an off track.

LANI – I pretty much explained all the things I like about Lani in my last column, and although I see him being more dangerous in the Belmont Stakes, I am still expecting a much improved effort here as he continues to show progress in his training as he acclimates to training in this country and a new environment. He seems to have settled into a routine at Belmont Park and doesn’t seem to be pulling those wacky antics he did in Louisville. I don’t believe people will be mocking this horse anymore.

COLLECTED – Bob Baffert is always dangerous, and this colt has three stakes victories to his credit, including one at 1 1/8 miles, but his Thoro-Graph figures have been consistently slow and he would have to improve on his Beyer figures as well. He is another with excellent front-running or tactical speed, but there will be a lot of competition up front. And being by City Zip, out of a Johannesburg mare, we’re talking speed on speed, so we’ll see how far he can carry his against top-class competition.

LAOBAN – He’s still a maiden, but a very talented one at that who is coming off excellent efforts in the Gotham Stakes and Blue Grass Stakes, in which he hung in there gamely after setting a pretty testing pace. Again, his Thoro-Graph and Beyer figures have been consistently slow, and trainer Eric Guillot is hoping that removing the blinkers will help him settle.

UNCLE LINO  -- He is another who has looked brilliant visually, but has been consistently slow in his Thoro-Graph figures, yet did run a solid 95 Beyer in his last start, the California Chrome Stakes at Los Alamitos. He does have a third to Exaggerator in the Santa Anita Derby and a second to Mor Spirit in the Robert Lewis, but would have to shown significant improvement to handle the pace pressure and competition. And he is down on the inside of all the speed, so he’ll have to bust out of there in order to get a decent position and prevent someone from getting to the rail in front of him.

FELLOWSHIP – He no doubt is champing at the bit after failing to get into the Kentucky Derby. He’s a hardened veteran already with 12 career starts, having chased Mohaymen and Nyquist at Gulfstream Park. He’s been consistent for the most part and his recent fourth in the Pat Day Mile run in 1:34 1/5 was a good sharpener for this. His speed figures don’t measure up to the contenders, but he is more than capable of picking up a piece of it if he gets a fast enough pace.

In summation, I can’t look past Nyquist and Exaggerator, but there are a number of interesting possibilities to complete the exotics.

Stradivari, as mentioned, could be any kind, but now we’re really talking chalk, and you have to take a shot and try to make some money. The main value with him is betting him to win if you feel he is special enough to knock off the two favorites.

From a personal standpoint, I have to bet Abiding Star because of that amazing pedigree and all the memories it evokes. As pedigrees go, this one is extremely special. And let’s say I would not be too happy if he won and I didn’t have him. Also, I can't help but think back to the 1972 Preakness when Riva Ridge and No Le Hace, one-two in the Derby, squared off on a sloppy track in the Preakness, and it was a local horse, Bee Bee Bee, who wired the field at odds of 18-1.

The two exotics horses if the pace scenario is in their favor are Cherry Wine and Lani. Also, if the track is off, Cherry Wine is more than capable of filling out a trifecta box if you're looking to get a longshot on top. He looks to be sitting on a top effort if the conditions are right. A saver on each one just in case could make it even more interesting.

To make a case for Lani from a historical standpoint, the vast majority of Preakness winners either won the Kentucky Derby or were off the board in the Derby. Well, we have the Derby winner, but Lani is the only horse coming back after having finished off the board at Churchill Downs. He will attempt to join Hansel, Louis Quatorze, Snow Chief, Oxbow, Lookin At Lucky, Point Given, Tabasco Cat, and Pine Bluff as modern day Preakness winners who finished worse than fourth in the Derby.

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