It is a beautiful sport that features breathtakingly gorgeous equines that are fast, powerful and, unfortunately, very brittle.
I am a realist and I totally understand that the sport I grew up loving, coming from a racing family, grabs the attention of the nation about five weeks per year. It starts on the first Saturday in May and it ends five weeks later in early June at Belmont Park.
Growing up around the track, you knew the Triple Crown winners Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and the greatest of them all Secretariat. In my bedroom at home, along with posters of John Riggins and Don Mattingly, I had a framed picture of a painting of all 11 winners with their respective jockeys.
The sport of horse racing is coming off of a year in which American Pharoah captured the imagination of this country. Owned by the Zayat Stables, trained by Bob Baffert and ridden by Victor Espinoza, the 3-year-old had a spring for the ages in 2015 as he won the Triple Crown for the first time in 37 years. Later in the fall at Keeneland Racecourse, he won the Breeder’s Cup Classic to complete what is now being called the "Grand Slam."
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It was an exciting time in the sport as I have never heard Belmont Park louder on that June Saturday when he completed the Triple Crown. Now, do we have another?
Well in the Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, we have an undefeated 3-year-old. It is just the eighth time in the 142-year history of the Derby that they have had an undefeated winner.
Last year, as the nation focused their attention on American Pharoah, Nyquist was doing his thing as a 2-year-old as he completed his season with a victory in the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile in Kentucky and was crowned 2-year-old champion.
When a streak is broken, like the 37-year Triple Crown drought, there is always a hangover the following season when somebody is attempting a similar feat the following season. So, that was the case leading into the Kentucky Derby as there was a perceived lack of buzz in the Run for the Roses.
Nyquist took care of that with a brilliant performance that was even more impressive than last year’s victory by American Pharoah. He sat off a very quick pace for a 1 ¼-mile race and was able to out finish Gun Runner and hold off Exaggerator in a time of 2:01.3. It was a very impressive performance as the son of Uncle Mo also answered all the doubters about a possible distance limitation.
So here we are, the week of the Preakness, down at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland. It is a 1 3/16-mile test that will feature some new shooters in Cherry Wine, Uncle Lino, Collected and Stradivari, but I just don’t see anything changing this Saturday as compared to what we saw in Louisville.
The sport has had only two back-to-back Triple Crown winners and that was Seattle Slew and Affirmed in ’77 and ’78, respectively. Could we be looking at a repeat of history this year? I think we could be because unless Nyquist regresses in the Preakness, there is no reason to believe that he will not arrive at Belmont Park with a chance to win the a Triple Crown.
He has shown the ability to run on or just off the lead and has gotten faster as he has matured. He made the Derby "boring" with the way that he finished and how he put away the other 19 3-year-olds that were part of the race. His human connections, owner J. Paul Reddam, trainer Doug O’Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez have been here before in 2012 with I’ll Have Another. They also have known disappointment as they had top scratch I’ll Have Another the day before the Belmont Stakes due to tendonitis and was retired.
So when Doug O’Neill says that he has "goosebumps" watching Nyquist jog at Pimlico, than you should believe him. He has shown to be nothing short of special. All he has done is win all eight times that he has been sent to the track to race.
This Saturday, the spotlight will be on him and it should be. He will and should not be in the shadow on American Pharoah. For a sport that is desperate for attention, it looks like they have another special 3-year-old in Nyquist.
He was named after Detroit Red Wing winger Gustav Nyquist as Reddam is a huge Wings fan. The more he wins, the more familiar you will become with his backstory. O’Neill says Nyquist is the best horse that he has ever been around.
Nyquist has not known defeat. All he has done is win since he started racing and I don’t expect anything different on Saturday. Will he become the 13th Triple Crown winner in history? Only time will tell and put it on the line once again in the Preakness.