BALTIMORE — Whenever it looks like a horse can’t lose, beware. Before Saturday’s Preakness Stakes, the buzz was that 3-5 favorite Nyquist was bound to run his record to 9-for-9 and head for Belmont Park with a chance at immortality.
Exaggerator canceled that possibility by defeating an exhausted Nyquist by a widening 3 1⁄2 lengths. There will be no chance for an American Pharoah encore in the 1 1⁄2-mile “Test of the Champion” on June 11.
Trainer Doug O’Neill was making no promises after falling short in the middle jewel of the Triple Crown. “It’s a bummer, of course,’’ he said. “Our horse, God, he’s so amazing. But they’re not machines. Being 8-for-8, we kept thinking that this horse is never going to lose. But they all lose one time or another. We’ll be OK.’’
O’Neill said he and co-owners J. Paul Reddam and Reddam’s wife, Zillah, would decide whether taking on Exaggerator for the sixth time is in their colt’s best interest.
“We’ll huddle up with Paul and Zillah and the whole crew and see how he comes out of it,’’ O’Neill said. “It looks like he came back and got unsaddled in good shape.
“Maybe we’ll try again.”
That seems unlikely, considering the Triple Crown dream was drowned in the muck at Old Hilltop. Even if Nyquist does show up, there will be no need for the New York Racing Association to cap the crowd at 90,000 for the Belmont, as it did last year for American Pharoah. A rubber match between Exaggerator and Nyquist would be intriguing for people who follow the sport year round but would not be a drawing card for the casual fans and newbies whom Pharoah lured.
A NYRA spokesman said likely opponents for Exaggerator include Cherry Wine, who nosed out Nyquist for second Saturday; Japan-based Lani, fifth, beaten by five lengths in the Preakness after finishing ninth in the Kentucky Derby; and Derby also-rans Suddenbreakingnews (fifth) and Destin (sixth).
Had Nyquist won, he would have made the 11th Triple Crown bid in the past 20 runnings of the Belmont, and the fourth in the past five years. Before American Pharoah’s breakthrough last spring, Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999), War Emblem (2002), Funny Cide (2003), Smarty Jones (2004), Big Brown (2008) and California Chrome (2014) all came up short.
Four years ago, I’ll Have Another was scratched the day before the Belmont with a career-ending tendon injury. He also was trained by O’Neill, ridden by Mario Gutierrez and owned by the Reddams.
O’Neill refused to blame the muddy track for Nyquist’s defeat, his first in five races against Exaggerator. Nyquist dominated the Florida Derby on April 2 on a drying-out track at Gulfstream Park, but there was no one in the field as good as the mud-loving colt who beat him Saturday.
“Pimlico did a good job with the track with it raining all day long,” O’Neill said. “It’s Mother Nature. What are you going to do?”