Whether it’s been the result of a misguided battle plan or the horse simply being too headstrong early, the Nyquist we saw in the Preakness and Haskell Invitational was not the same horse we saw in his first eight starts, all victories and all professional efforts. Nyquist never made you feel as if he was the fastest horse in the country or possessed the most stamina. It wasn’t as if he dazzled you on the front end or blew you away in the stretch. His main attribute was that he knew how to win and never beat himself. He could overcome substantial ground loss and beat you from midpack, as he did in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, or he could beat you on or just off the lead – by three to five lengths or a nose and a head. He would let you look him in the eye, but good luck trying to get past him. It just didn’t happen.
Then something did happen in the Preakness and Haskell that we hadn’t seen before. The colt who was so classy in the Kentucky Derby and Florida Derby appeared to be urged to the lead in the slop, became rank going into the first turn, actually running the fastest opening quarter in Preakness history, and was unable to turn back the challenges of Exaggerator, who he had defeated in all four of their previous meetings. Was it the slop, which Exaggerator loves, the inside posts both times, being so rank early, or the mistake in strategy of going all out for the lead, especially in the Preakness, where overconfidence may have set in? Or was it a combination of each?
That is what we hope to find out in Saturday’s Pennsylvania Derby, where he gets another crack at Exaggerator on a fast track. Unfortunately, during the past four months, Exaggerator has built up a championship resume, amazingly, all on sloppy tracks. But having run atrociously in the Belmont Stakes and Travers Stakes on fast tracks, he has much to prove on Saturday as well, this time with Nyquist finally drawing an outside post and Exaggerator drawing down on the inside.
Normally the Pennsylvania Derby, which drew a number of top-quality horses, including multiple stakes winners Gun Runner and Cupid, would go a long way in deciding the 3-year-old championship, except for a monster named Arrogate, who the entire 3-year-old picture upside down with the other-worldly performance in the Travers, in which Nyquist fortunately didn’t participate.
You could say Nyquist was back in California trying to find his former self, as perhaps were his connections. And to their credit they have given him every chance to return to the Nyquist of old. First they removed him from the hubbub of Santa Anita and Del Mar and sent him to the more tranquil surroundings of San Luis Rey Downs and gave him a month off. While Exaggerator was throwing in a clunker in the Travers and Arrogate was shattering the track record, Nyquist, that same morning, was breezing an easy mile in 1:45 4/5.
A week later, he stepped it up, going another mile in 1:41 1/5. The progression continued with a mile in 1:39 4/5 on Sept 10 and then 1:38 1/5 on Sept. 17. Four one-mile breezes, no speed works, no traffic or distractions. It was a true working vacation.
There is no doubt that Nyquist’s team has had a major plan since the Haskell as he prepares for his late-year charge for an Eclipse Award. And a victory in the Pennsylvania Derby would put him right back on top, as we then wait until the Breeders Cup Classic to see just what kind of freak Arrogate really is.
But right now he has his work cut out for him, as he takes on a talented field over an unknown and sometimes deep and quirky track that had California Chrome floundering over it in the 2014 Pennsylvania Derby.
But one thing we can feel confident in is that Nyquist could not be coming into this race any better prepared. He should be relaxed with a great deal of foundation under him. All the spit and vinegar he showed in the Preakness and Haskell should be gone. His connections will not be thinking he is so superior he can wire his opponents at will as American Pharoah did last year. He finally has a fast track and an outside post, and will be able to use the versatility that helped him win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Kentucky Derby.
In short, they have every reason to feel confident. Now it’s just a question of which Exaggerator we’re going to see, how big an effort we’re going to get from Gun Runner, how good Cupid really is, and other factors. Can Connect bounce back to his Curlin Stakes form? Can Awesome Slew repeat his dominating score from the Smarty Jones Stakes over this same track? How far can Summer Revolution carry is blistering sprint speed? Can My Man Sam fly home late to pick up the pieces? Can Hit it Once More handle open company after crushing New York-breds in a pair of state-bred races?
But in the end it should all be about one thing. Will we see the same Nyquist we saw last year and this past winter and spring? The Breeders’ Cup needs him, racing needs him, and in many ways Arrogate needs him. One thing we can be sure of, his connections this time are giving him every chance to be that horse.