BALTIMORE — The undefeated favorite who wasn’t supposed to stay 1 1⁄4 miles was long gone by midstretch. In what was billed as the most wide-open Kentucky Derby in years, the first four betting choices finished 1-2-3-4, in order. The predicted chaos worked out like an equation.
The Triple Crown shifts to Pimlico, with only runner-up Exaggerator and ninth-place Lani returning to take another shot at Nyquist in Saturday’s 1 3/16-mile Preakness. Eight newcomers are likely to try him, too, with most of them looking as overmatched as a gimpy gazelle against a cheetah.
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Gun Runner, third in the Derby, was withdrawn Tuesday morning, and Parx-based Abiding Star is expected to be entered Wednesday. That would make 10 challengers for Nyquist, three more than faced eventual Triple Crown hero American Pharoah last year. Second is worth $300,000 and third $160,000, far more than most winner’s shares, so why not take a shot?
Exaggerator looks like the second-best 3-year-old, and he’s 0-for-4 against Nyquist. What does that say about everybody else? Kent Desormeaux said he and his older brother, trainer Keith Desormeaux, may have to modify their deep closer’s style to try to make up the 1 1⁄4-length Derby margin.
Kent Desormeaux began his Hall of Fame career in Maryland in 1987.
“You seldom see horses make up tons of ground in the Preakness,” he said. “So I will probably adjust my situation.”
Exaggerator was quick enough to stay close to Nyquist early in two stakes in California, so at least he won’t have to learn a new trick on the fly.
The Cajun brothers are more hopeful than confident about knocking off Nyquist. “It looks like he’s pulling his jockey, but he has an amazing turn of foot when the rider asks him for more,’’ Kent said. “So I think he’s an incredibly talented horse.”
Exaggerator had traffic trouble about 3 1⁄2 furlongs from the Derby wire, which Kent said “denied me the opportunity to challenge Nyquist.’’ Still, he’s not saying it cost him victory.
“I know I would’ve caught up to him by the eighth pole,” he said. “But I daresay I’m not sure Nyquist would’ve let me by.”
Unlike the Derby, which had only two front-runners, Danzing Candy and Outwork, and an inordinate number of closers (nine), the Preakness is loaded with early foot. Uncle Lino, the maiden Laoban and Abiding Star, all sons of Uncle Mo, like Nyquist, are need-to-lead types. Stradivari, Collected and Awesome Speed run on or near the pace, too, so maybe Exaggerator will be coming from midpack, not far back. But if Nyquist is himself, nothing else may matter much.
The ideal attributes for a top-class thoroughbred are tactical speed, courage and quick acceleration. American Pharoah had them all, and so does Nyquist. He’s won on the lead, stalking and rallying under Mario Gutierrez.
Mark Casse will saddle long shot Fellowship, a loser of seven in a row. Casse trains the filly Tepin, a world champion on turf who shares Nyquist’s versatile style on a different surface.
“A lot of times, it’s the horse that causes the wonderful trip,” Casse said. “The ability to make adjustments is very important, and you’ve seen that with Nyquist. I’ve been a believer in him for a long time.’’
Doug O’Neill shipped Nyquist here two days after the Derby, and he likes his energy level and how he’s settled in. He’s as fit as he’s ever going to be, so O’Neill is training him lightly, jogging one day and galloping the next. Just like during Derby week, he won’t have a timed workout.
O’Neill isn’t stressing out about the competition but knows anything can happen in a race. “I don’t have any superstitions,’’ he said, “but one thing [owner] Paul Reddam has taught me is never to say, ‘We can’t get beat.’ That’s usually the kiss of death.
“But if Nyquist stays OK, I’m very optimistic he’ll be very tough to beat. He’s the best horse I’ve ever been blessed to be around. He’s a special gift.’’
Notes & quotes: The draw will be streamed live on drf.com at 5 p.m. Wednesday . . . The Weather Channel forecasts a 100-percent chance of rain Saturday. Nyquist and Exaggerator have dominated on wet tracks.