Could Nyquist make it back-to-back Triple Crowns?

Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist stands with Fernel Serrano, hotwalker, as he gets a bath outside the Stakes Barn at Pimlico Race Course on Wednesday morning.
Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist stands with Fernel Serrano, hotwalker, as he gets a bath outside the Stakes Barn at Pimlico Race Course on Wednesday morning. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

American Pharoah answered the question that had hung over every Preakness and Belmont Stakes for 37 years: Which horse would finally end the Triple Crown drought?

Now that the heir to Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed is out to stud on a farm in Kentucky, a new question has dominated the run-up to Saturday's 141st Preakness at Pimlico Race Course: Could we see two in a row?


Nyquist — the undefeated Kentucky Derby champion and 3-5 Preakness favorite — is good enough to make that speculation far from ridiculous.

All week, the connections to the Preakness' 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.

American Pharoah proved last year that a great horse can still capture the public imagination. He drew crowds in the thousands just to watch him work out, attracted millions to watch races normally ignored by casual fans and inspired debates about whether a non-human could be the best athlete of 2015.


What's less clear is how great an impact he had on a sport that had craved a signature hero for decades. For example, the television rating for Nyquist's Kentucky Derby win was a 9.3, down 14 percent from 2015. Attendance and betting handle have been up at some tracks, including Laurel Park, but not at others. And industry analysts say it's hard to connect any of those changes directly to American Pharoah.

"If people see that as a disappointment, I think it's because they set their expectations too high," said Tim Capps, director of the equine industry program at the University of Louisville. "If we look back at history, I don't know that we've ever seen a Triple Crown winner change the face of the sport. Perhaps Secretariat."

Already, the debates have begun about whether Nyquist can escape American Pharoah's considerable shadow and whether it would be a good thing if he pulled off a repeat Triple Crown, as Affirmed did in 1978.

"You can't dangle that 37-year carrot anymore," said NBC analyst Laffit Pincay III. "As incredible as it was to watch American Pharoah win and watch Belmont just shake — with several minutes of a standing ovation and complete strangers hugging each other — in this society, with a shorter attention span, that same trick ain't going to work twice. Not with the same intrigue."

With one last workout on the track for Nyquist at Pimlico Race Course on Friday, trainer Doug O'Neill had a final chance to identify a hiccup with the 3-5

Pincay, whose father rode Sham against Secretariat in 1973, said that's no knock on Nyquist.

"No matter who came around this year, and we're talking about a special horse in Nyquist, there was going to be that specter of American Pharoah looming over the Triple Crown," he said.

Nyquist's trainer, Doug O'Neill, and his owner, Paul Reddam, have side-stepped questions about the Triple Crown and living up to American Pharoah's legacy.

"All of the energy now is just positive, and I think we're all just fired up to be back here with a Derby winner and with the hopes of winning the Preakness," O'Neill said Thursday. "That's where all the energy is."

He and Reddam know how treacherous it can be to get ahead of yourself, thinking about a Triple Crown. In 2012, they took I'll Have Another to the Belmont Stakes as a 4-5 favorite to pull it off. They had to scratch him the day before the race because of a tendon injury.

'Exceptional racehorse'

People around racing have noticed an anecdotal uptick in the number of people who want to talk about the Triple Crown.

"It's not like people were going to show up the next day the racetrack was open with their pockets full of cash. That wasn't the effect American Pharoah was going to have," Pincay said. "But I know I've been asked by friends about the Triple Crown going into this year more than any year before. There is that question of, 'Are we going to see the next American Pharoah?' It was such a fun ride that people want to know if we're going to get to do it again? And it may be."

Regardless of American Pharoah's broader legacy, there's little question fans and analysts are measuring Nyquist's achievements against the standard his predecessor set.

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.

His advocates note that to this point in their respective careers, Nyquist is a more accomplished horse than American Pharoah was. He's undefeated, won bigger races as a 2-year-old and arguably ran a more impressive Kentucky Derby.

Only one other horse, Seattle Slew, has won the Triple Crown with an unblemished record, and Capps says that history will matter if Nyquist goes to New York with a chance to pull it off.

"This is an exceptional racehorse," he said. "I think people might actually care a little bit more, because last year is fresh in their minds and because only a handful of horses have made it to Belmont undefeated. I think there's enough history and enough story to make this one resonate."

Capps wrote a book about the rivalry between Affirmed and Alydar, and he said fans were not bored with the 1978 Triple Crown chase, despite the fact Seattle Slew had done it the year before and Secretariat had done it five years earlier.

'It would be amazing'

Fans who came out to Pimlico all week to watch Nyquist's morning gallops said they're prepared to be swept up in his story if he wins Saturday.

"I think people will get just as excited, because the Triple Crown is an amazing accomplishment," said Barbara Spence, who keeps horses on her farm in Woodbine. "I've had thoroughbreds, so I know their personalities, and he just sounds like a really calm, smart, easy-to-work-with horse. That makes him special."

Her friend, Anne Decker, was up from Florida to watch Nyquist. "I can't tell you any horsey stuff," she said, laughing. "But I can tell you that he's just gorgeous."

Betsy Klenk and her daughter, Katie, drove from York, Pa., to watch Nyquist with other members of their pony club. They were struck by how approachable O'Neill seemed as he fielded questions from fans outside the Derby champion's barn.

"So engaging," Katie said.

"Every year, we're hoping and praying for another Triple Crown winner," Betsy said. "It's such a huge accomplishment that to have two in a row, it would be strange. But it would be amazing."

No one has a fresher perspective on the Triple Crown than Bob Baffert, who trained American Pharoah through his remarkable run last year.

Baffert is a realist when it comes to horses, even his own. But there was a splendor to American Pharoah's stride that stirred the trainer's soul in a way no other horse has. Baffert would bring guests just to watch his champion work out, hoping they would be swept away as well.

"I don't know that we'll see another horse like him," the Hall of Fame trainer said this week, chatting with reporters outside the Preakness barn. "He's the best horse I've seen since I've been in the business, even watching him breeze, everything was so easy for him. Like a Usain Bolt or a LeBron James."

If the horse hadn't been unique, Baffert would probably be sick of talking about him. But he's not, because after two decades of training the best 3-year-olds in the sport, he finally got one worthy of the legacy of Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed.

Baffert has great respect for Nyquist and expects him to win the Preakness. But he's not buying the comparisons to American Pharoah, and even if Nyquist goes to Belmont Park with a chance at the Triple Crown, he's not sure the story will be as captivating.


"It's like, well all right, we saw it after it looked like it couldn't be done," Baffert said. "You just don't know if it can be as big as what Pharoah did."



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