Five factors contributing to Nyquist’s loss in Preakness

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

May 22nd, 2016

“I won’t overthink the Preakness – saving that for the Belmont.” So I wrote when making Nyquist my top selection in Saturday’s Preakness (G1).

In hindsight, it was Nyquist’s connections who overthought the Preakness. With the luxury of Sunday afternoon quarterbacking, I can identify five factors that conspired together to hand the Kentucky Derby (G1)-winning champion his first career defeat.

Drawing an inside post between two speed horses. Post position 3, in and of itself, should not have posed a problem. What turned it into a potentially tricky spot was the fact that he was flanked by front-running types on either side, and there was additional speed drawn wider out that would likely angle over. If he broke half a step slowly, Nyquist was in danger of being shuffled back and buried. Had at least one closer drawn next door, Nyquist would have had more room to maneuver. Or if the primary speed had been outside, as in the Derby, Nyquist would have let him angle over and then set up shop in an outside stalking spot again.

Again, the draw alone wasn’t necessarily a negative, but it influenced the decision-making of Team Nyquist. In that respect, it was the first in the chain of falling dominos.

Planning to send Nyquist right from the start. Immediately after the draw Wednesday evening, trainer Doug O’Neill said, “I think we're going to leave there running and just kind of play it by ear.”

As with the post, this tactic in and of itself didn’t have to spell disaster. Indeed, it’s logical to ensure an alert break and secure good early positon. Regular rider Mario Gutierrez gave him a little more overt of a signal than usual. Although it wasn’t exactly Martin Pedroza-style Quarter Horsing, Nyquist may have taken it too much to heart and responded in his willing and enthusiastic fashion.

Recall that Nyquist also broke running in the Derby, where he was in the vanguard with Gun Runner before allowing Danzing Candy to go on with the pacesetting job. And in the Florida Derby (G1), Nyquist likewise flashed speed from the gate and took charge. Although he was pressed by longshots at Gulfstream Park, Nyquist was racing well within himself through splits of :23.60 and :47.09. You could see from his head carriage as well that he was very comfortable, not harried or pestered at all.

I suspect that this might have been what O’Neill envisioned for the “play it by ear” part of his tactics. If you’re in front easily, take what they give you. The problem was that there was a lot more serious, and better quality, speed in the Preakness. The Florida Derby scenario might have unfolded here – how often do we expect a hot pace only to see jockeys take back unexpectedly – so it was sensible to be prepared for that possibility.

The greater likelihood, however, was that Uncle Lino, next door in post 2, was going to gun it. His trainer, Gary Sherlock, had said as much. Uncle Lino’s vastly better than the no-hopers Nyquist was matching strides with early in the Florida Derby.

So once the pace set-up became clear entering the first turn, I expected Nyquist to ease back, which brings us to the next factor.

Failing to react and make adjustments on the fly. I’m not the type to blame jockeys hastily as soon as my rooting interest doesn’t get the hoped-for trip. From the safety of my armchair view, I have no idea what it looks like on the back of a Thoroughbred hurtling at high speed in close quarters with his rivals, all looking to seize an edge. In this instance, however, it’s difficult to escape the fact that Gutierrez didn’t make the right decision once it was obvious that Uncle Lino was committed on his inside. Awesome Speed, who tried desperately to keep up in the next path over, couldn’t hold his position, and Gutierrez had every chance to ease back in the clear on the clubhouse turn.

Might the damage have already been done through the wicked opening quarter in :22.38 – the fastest in Preakness history? Quite possibly. But giving Nyquist a breather thereafter, knowing that you’ve got Uncle Lino any time you want him, might have salvaged the situation. Persisting in a duel the length of the backstretch, through a punishing half in :46.56, compounded the problem. They simply couldn’t sustain that tempo, and the deceleration began by the six-furlong mark in 1:11.97.

On social media, an inevitably spirited discussion arose between Gutierrez’s critics and his defenders, who pointed out that Nyquist could not be wrangled back once he was fully engaged. I’ve noticed that Nyquist can be a little aggressive early (my only real concern that prevented me from making him my top pick in the Derby).

But as illustrated in the Derby, he’s also tractable, not a keyed-up run-off by temperament. I think he was responding to Gutierrez’s early cues, and not receiving a subsequent instruction to back off. Unless the rider was giving him such a subtle cue that we as observers couldn’t see it from afar, I didn’t detect Gutierrez trying to switch Nyquist off. To me, he appeared content with his position, possibly unaware of how fast they were actually going.

In the aftermath, O’Neill has graciously deflected criticism of the ride upon himself, reiterating their publicly stated tactic of flashing speed at the break. Perhaps their internal discussions were more set upon just winging it, regardless.

In any event, the tactical plan expounded at the draw was much more provisional. O’Neill had said Wednesday: “If they're not showing a lot of pace, we're going to make it. If it's hot and heavy, Mario has shown and Nyquist has shown that they can sit off a hot and heavy pace.”

Unfortunately, the second half of the original plan – diagnosing the pace and adjusting accordingly – never happened, which brings us to the next factor on the list.

Brimming with overconfidence. To borrow Alan Greenspan’s phrase, you could say that Team Nyquist was indulging in “irrational exuberance” that clouded their collective judgment.

Although their pre-race quotes were bullish, you’d expect nothing less from the connections of an undefeated champion who’d done something historic in the Derby. If the vibes weren’t over-the-top positive, you’d start to wonder if everything were OK in Nyquistland. So I took the comments as a reassurance that it was business as usual, full steam ahead, etc.

In hindsight, seeing O’Neill’s post-race quotes, it was apparent that they fell victim to overconfidence:

I didn’t think we could get beat, to be honest with you.

Being 8-for-8, we kept thinking that this horse is never going to lose…

Him going fast early was really my idea, thinking ‘he’s the best horse, take it to them.’

If we’re going to get beat, let’s get beat being aggressive and not trying to get cute and get in trouble.

They're not machines, as much as he would seem like a machine, being undefeated and doing everything like a superhorse…

This is the crucial context for understanding Gutierrez’s failure to adjust to circumstances. While I wish that Gutierrez would have blotted all that out from his mind and ridden a headier race, it’s only human to get caught up in the hype – especially if it’s affecting the trainer’s instructions.

Finally, it would be grotesque to concentrate only on what went wrong for Nyquist, and ignore a very worthy winner, which brings us to the final factor.

Exaggerator’s a top-notch horse himself. The pace meltdown didn’t produce an incomprehensible Mine That Bird type of result. Instead, it set the table for Nyquist’s best rival, Exaggerator, who ran his race under a superb Kent Desormeaux ride. Nyquist didn’t just lose the Preakness; Exaggerator went out and won it like the high-class performer he is.

Although his Hall of Fame jockey deserves credit for masterminding the trip – relaxing early and taking the rail route while steadily improving his position down the backstretch – Exaggerator had the ability to execute it perfectly. He looked every inch the winner rounding the far turn, traveling better than Nyquist and telegraphing that, for once, Exaggerator had his measure.

By this point, you’re surely wondering, “It was a sloppy track! When are you going to mention that Exaggerator loves the slop?!”

Of course, track condition played a role insofar as Exaggerator skips over it. But I’m deliberately not including it in my “five factors” because to me, that would be exaggerating its direct influence on his loss. While the slop may well have increased Exaggerator’s winning margin, and certainly assisted Cherry Wine in nosing out a spent Nyquist for second, it wasn’t part of the chain of causality.

If the Preakness had unfolded differently, with Nyquist employing more patient tactics and still losing, track condition would definitely be in the forefront of factors. By needlessly dueling through that vicious pace, however, Nyquist would have been left vulnerable in a fast-track Preakness too.

After all, Exaggerator was a terrific second to Nyquist on fast tracks in both the San Vicente (G2) and Kentucky Derby. It’s not as though he was that far off the champion.

You can rank the slop higher on your list if you like, but human decision-making – and the consequent pace – strike me as more significant factors in how Preakness 141 played out.

Nyquist photo courtesy of Jessie Holmes/EquiSport Photos