Will Nyquist Win Again in the Preakness Stakes?

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

In many cases, handicapping a horse race involves analyzing the speed and talent of each horse and trying to project how the race will be run. Will the pace be fast and favor deep closers? Will a talented front-runner take command through easy pace fractions and never look back? Which horse looks ready for a peak performance, and which one might be regressing after a long campaign? Will the track conditions affect the outcome of the race?

In other words, there are many factors to consider when handicapping a race, and it's easy to envision multiple outcomes based on varying scenarios. But the longer I handicap the $1,000,000 Preakness Stakes (gr. I) at Pimlico, the more certain I become that two horses--Nyquist and Exaggerator--stand above the rest.

We'll start with Nyquist, who is by far the most accomplished horse in the race. He has been unbeatable so far, winning eight straight races (including five grade Is), culminating with an impressive victory in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). In that race, Nyquist flashed speed from the start and wound up tracking a very fast pace before taking command in bold fashion at the top of the stretch. He figures to work out a great trip starting from post position three, likely contesting the early pace, and the slight cutback in distance to 9.5 furlongs should only help his chances.

To me, the only concerns are the potential pace and the track conditions, but I don't think either will be an issue. While many are expecting a fast pace in the Preakness, I think it could be on the slower side. Several of the speed horses in the race--such as Uncle Lino, Awesome Speed, and Stradivari--have shown a preference to rate off the lead and/or haven't been setting very fast fractions in their races. In addition, Laoban--one of the truest front-runners in the race--will be racing without blinkers and is expected to take back off the pace. In fact, the only horse that I envision giving Nyquist a serious challenge for the lead is Abiding Star, and while he's quick, I don't think he'll set a blazing pace.

Furthermore, as I mentioned last year in an Unlocking Winners blog post (click here to read), you can usually count on the Preakness pace to be the opposite of the Derby pace, and since the Derby pace was so fast, I think there's a strong chance we'll see more modest fractions this Saturday, which could play in favor of Nyquist.

As for the track conditions, with rain in the forecast for Friday and Saturday, it's possible that the Preakness will be conducted over a sloppy track. Nyquist doesn't have any experience with such conditions, but did win the Florida Derby (gr. I) over a wet track labeled "good" and certainly didn't have any trouble in the Kentucky Derby, where the track--although labeled "fast"--was a bit wet from a downpour earlier in the day. In addition, Nyquist's sire--Uncle Mo--ran one of the best races of his career over a sloppy track, and Uncle Mo's progeny have shown an affinity for wet conditions. Even if the track is very sloppy, I don't think it will pose a problem for Nyquist, and I think he looks like a standout in the Preakness. Despite his odds--he's 3-5 on the morning line--he is my selection to win.

Exaggerator has been the picture of consistency through his last nine starts, finishing third or better in eight of them. After showing lots of speed early in his career, a switch to late-running tactics has resulted in impressive improvement for Exaggerator, who won the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) by 6 ¼ lengths before rallying strongly to finish second in the Kentucky Derby. His versatility is a major asset, as is his affinity for wet tracks (he's 2-for-2 on sealed tracks), and you have to have respect for any horse that can crack the superfecta in eight straight graded stakes races. I might be slightly biased since I've been a fan of Exaggerator since his maiden win, but just as I find it hard to envision Nyquist losing the Preakness, I find it hard to envision Exaggerator finishing out of the exacta. I think these two talented colts will repeat their Derby showings and run 1-2 again, setting up a potential Affirmed/Alydar-type showdown in the Belmont Stakes.

For the trifecta and superfecta, I'll strongly consider both Uncle Lino and Stradivari. The former ran admirably in Santa Anita's major Derby prep races, with his best effort being a third in the Santa Anita Derby after tracking a blazing pace over a sloppy track, and he showed a lot of grit and talent to win the 8.5-furlong California Chrome Stakes at Los Alamitos while running the final five-sixteenths in a rapid :29.82 seconds. He might be in for a tricky trip while starting from post two, and the distance might be a bit beyond his best range, but Uncle Lino has a lot of positives and could be sitting on a big run.

As for Stradivari, he's looked terrific winning two straight races by 25 ¾ lengths, but has gotten very easy trips in both of those races and could get a wide trip on Saturday while starting from post 11. Still, if jockey John Velazquez can work out a good trip, either by getting involved in the pace or settling back off the lead, Stradivari looks like a highly talented colt with the potential to achieve great things.

Cherry Wine, fourth in the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) and third in the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), could also be in the mix. While the form of the Blue Grass wasn't flattered when 1-2 finishers Brody's Cause and My Man Sam finished off the board in the Kentucky Derby, Cherry Wine broke his maiden by 9 ¼ lengths over a sloppy track at Churchill last November and might thrive with a wet track on Saturday. I'll also give a close look to Lani, who seems to be more consistent in his training since finishing ninth after a slow start and a wide trip in the Kentucky Derby. He'll be a longshot, but he's shown decent wet-track form in Japan, and a better start than in the Derby could put him in the position to crack the Preakness superfecta at a big price.

I would also like to briefly mention Collected, who has won three stakes races this year for trainer Bob Baffert, including the Lexington Stakes (gr. III) at Keeneland by four lengths. Collected figures to be well-bet off his stakes wins and Bob Baffert's impressive record in the Preakness, but Collected hasn't been facing the toughest competition, and Baffert has voiced concerns in the past about Collected's ability to handle longer distances. I won't be surprised if Collected runs well, but he does remind me of Baffert-trained runners like Govenor Charlie and Bayern, talented three-year-olds that skipped the Derby and finished off the board in the Preakness.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Preakness Stakes?



J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website http://www.theturfboard.com/.

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