Horse racing was hoping for another Triple Crown winner; instead it got itself an honest-to-goodness rivalry.
Just when everyone thought that Nyquist, after suffering the first loss of his career in nine starts, was going to take a little time to recover, trainer Doug O’Neill said he is taking the horse to New York to run in the Belmont Stakes in three weeks.
There he will run against Exaggerator, the colt that beat the Kentucky Derby winner on Saturday in the Preakness Stakes.
“I think it’s safe to say it’s a rivalry because these two are very, very close in ability,” O’Neill said after flying back to Los Angeles on Sunday. “Now that no one is going to sweep the Triple Crown, this is the rubber match. It’s a very intriguing race.”
The rivalry between these horses is not restricted to the Triple Crown.
The Preakness was the first time in five tries that Exaggerator has beaten Nyquist. The son of Uncle Mo beat the offspring of Curlin in a maiden race last June at Santa Anita and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, along with the San Vicente and Kentucky Derby this year.
“The whole plan was to hit the Triple Crown races, which is why we intentionally raced him lightly [this year],” O’Neill said.
Exaggerator ran three times before the Kentucky Derby, including a striking win in the Santa Anita Derby over a muddy track.
O’Neill attributed Saturday’s loss to two factors.
“The track was kind of sticky and heavy,” O’Neill said. “The track we won over in Florida and Kentucky were more wet fast.”
As for the second reason, O’Neill lived up to his reputation as one of those textbook bosses who always pass credit and absorb blame.
“Our strategy backfired and that’s mostly on me,” O’Neill said. “My level of confidence was so high that my instructions to [jockey] Mario [Gutierrez] was to take it to them. Don’t take any chances, even if it means being in front. … It wasn’t Mario, it was me and it backfired.”
The fast early fractions may have eventually done in Nyquist, although Exaggerator may still have won after his spectacular trip and stretch drive.
“If we could do it all over again, we would have been much more patient and rode in a more conservative way to save more for the end,” O’Neill said.
Nyquist will van to New York on Monday while Exaggerator will go no earlier than Wednesday, and more likely on Sunday. Keith Desormeaux, Exaggerator’s trainer, doesn’t like to upset a horse’s routine.
Exaggerator probably will be the betting favorite at the Belmont, despite Nyquist’s previous dominance over the horse. Desormeaux’s colt seems more suited to the 1 ½-mile distance of the Belmont Stakes than Nyquist.
“The most important thing is this horse’s ability to recover,” Desormeaux said. “When he pulled up in the winner’s circle [Saturday], he was already cooled out. His heart rate was down. His respiratory rate was almost normal and you could see calm in his eyes.
A horse moves along a muddy track during a rainy Saturday before the running of the 141st Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.(Matt Slocum / Associated Press)
A hot walker moves down a muddy track with Homeboykris before the first horse race on the Preakness Stakes card on Saturday at Pimlico Race Course.(Mike Stewart / Associated Press)
Horses run in the mud during the first race Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, where Exaggerator would later win the 141st running of the Preakness Stakes.(Rob Carr / Getty Images)
A race fan walks through the mud to the infield at Pimlico Race Course before the 141st running of the Preakness Stakes.(Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)
A horse is covered in mud following the first race Saturday at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.(Rob Carr / Getty Images)
Jockey Victor R. Carrasco catches his breath after riding in a race before the Preakness Stakes on Saturday at Pimlico Race Course.(Patrick Smith / Getty Images)
A couple embrace in the infield before the 141st Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course on Saturday.(Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)
Fans in the Pimlico Race Course infield dance to a Fetty Wap performance Saturday before the 141st running of the Preakness Stakes.(Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)
Race fans in the Pimlico Race Course infield participate in some revelry before the 141st Preakness Stakes on Saturday.(Patrick Smith / Getty Images)
Horses leave the starting gate for the 141st Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course on Saturday.(Nick Wass / Associated Press)
Exaggerator, with Kent Desormeaux aboard, moves past Nyquist and jockey Mario Gutierrez during the 141st Preakness Stakes on Saturday at Pimlico Race Course.(Garry Jones / Associated Press)
Exaggerator, with Kent Desormeaux aboard, runs along the rail toward the finish line before winning the 141st Preakness Stakes on Saturday. Favored Nyquist, second from left, would finish third.(Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)
“Most horses when they run that huge effort, they’re bug-eyed and rattled and sweated up. He was totally calm.”
Desormeaux is charming with the media but prefers it in small doses.
On Sunday morning, he was willing to play along with a joking question as to whether he should take his brother, Hall of Fame jockey Kent, off the horse.
“I’m thinking about giving somebody else a chance,” Desormeaux said. “He’s won so many of these things, he’s getting a little greedy. Maybe, I’ll get Calvin [Borel] out of retirement.
The Belmont is shaping up to be one of the more fascinating races, especially if you consider these horses will never run this distance on the dirt again.
Horses that are likely starters include Cherry Wine, who nosed Nyquist for second, and Lani, who has run both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Brody’s Cause, a stablemate of Cherry Wine’s and trained by Dale Romans, is set to come back after a seventh-place finish in the Derby.
There is also Suddenbreakingnews, who was fifth in the Derby, and Destin, who was sixth.