Nyquist trainer Doug O'Neill on Preakness weather: 'I think he'll show up and run his race'

Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, ridden by Jonny Garcia, heads back to the barn after a morning jog on the track on May 20, 2016.
Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, ridden by Jonny Garcia, heads back to the barn after a morning jog on the track on May 20, 2016. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

A pelting, blinding rainstorm last May turned the 140th Preakness into a muddy mess, with rivers along the rails; prompted the evacuation of the Pimlico Race Course infield, only minutes before post time; and proved American Pharoah's Triple Crown ambitions were not only legitimate but also weatherproof.

But perhaps the inundation's most unexpected consequence was jockey Gary Stevens' temporary weight gain. He entered the day at 120 pounds, including equipment. He left the race tipping the scales at a rain-soaked 135 pounds, not including his helmet. Afterward, he said he dumped water out of his boots, as if pouring a drink.


"Any other day, this probably would've been a rain delay, which would've been good," he told NBC after finishing seventh aboard Firing Line in the first Preakness run under sloppy track conditions since 1983. "But today's the Preakness."

Why shouldn't trainer Doug O'Neill be smiling? Not only does he have an undefeated horse who's seemingly impervious to anxiety. He's surrounded by a team of people — and when he says "team," he utters the word with religious conviction — who have stood with him through some of the harshest disappointments the racing game could muster.

Another Preakness will come Saturday, and the possibility of more inclement conditions has hung over the buildup to the race like, well, storm clouds.

Wet and cool conditions are expected, with the heaviest rain forecast to come before dawn and linger through midday. The post time for the Preakness is about 6:45 p.m.; there could be no more than a light rain by then.

All week, the connections to the race's top contenders have been asked an impossible question: What will your horse do in the downpour that might drench the racetrack, or might not come at all? Their answers have differed only in style.

Said Doug O'Neill, trainer of the undefeated Nyquist, the 3-5 morning-line favorite: "Whatever the weather will be, I think he'll show up and run his race."

Said Keith Desormeaux, trainer of Exaggerator, four times a runner-up to Nyquist: "We can't change our style. It's been too successful. We'd be stupid to do that."

At the Florida Derby last month, rain fell in two bursts around midday. About an hour before the gate opened, another shower wet the track. Nyquist won by three lengths.

A week later, as the Santa Anita Derby's 3-year olds entered the walking ring, light rain intensified to a steady shower. On just the fourth off-track in the race's 79-year history, Exaggerator won by 6 1/4 lengths.

"When the racetrack changes, it changes a lot of horses," Nyquist jockey Mario Gutierrez said Wednesday. "Some horses really love the mud, and they will maybe do the performance of their lives, so I have to really watch out for that, too. But at the same time, I do believe I am in the best horse."

American Pharoah was the best horse in 2015. Still, trainer Bob Baffert was worried. Before the race, from the TV near the entrance to the paddock, he could see standing water along the rail. American Pharoah was starting at the rail.

"Dad, look at the rain," his son, Bode, something of an amateur meteorologist, told him. "How are we going to get to the winner's circle?"

Baffert's wife, Jill, scolded Bode for inviting bad luck.

"While she was saying that," Baffert recalled, "I was looking at the rain and thinking I was just about to say the same thing.''

He could share the story with a smile Thursday. American Pharoah broke well, along with Mr. Z, and before long was clear of the pack. Jockey Victor Espinoza couldn't see much, owing to the water in his eyes, but he was the first to cross the finish line. Three weeks later, he celebrated the first Triple Crown win in 37 years.


Not everyone is praying for clear skies and smooth striding. Cherry Wine is a 20-1 long shot, with two wins in eight starts. His first career victory came as a 2-year-old, in a maiden special-weight race at a deluged Churchill Downs. The 9 1/4-length triumph wasn't hugely significant, except for how it might have changed trainer Dale Romans' Preakness-eve plans.

"I'll be one of the few people doing the rain dance," he said Thursday.


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