The history behind beating a Derby winner that's odds-on in the Preakness

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

May 16th, 2016

Article Image

After running 18 rivals off their feet and safely holding off a belated rally by Exaggerator in the Kentucky Derby (G1), undefeated champion Nyquist is expected to be an odds-on favorite to take Saturday's Preakness (G1) at Pimlico.

The question some bettors and the connections of Nyquist's potential rivals are asking is this: How do you beat a Kentucky Derby-winning odds-on favorite in the Preakness?

In the past half century, five Derby-winning colts have disappointed as the heaviest of favorites in Baltimore. Looking past the tragic incident that befell one of them, Barbaro (2006), here's a closer look at what happened to the other four.

Riva Ridge (1972)

The conventional wisdom for decades is that Riva Ridge's Triple Crown dreams were derailed at Pimlico due to a sloppy track, a surface condition he detested. A glance at his lifetime past performances does indeed show he ran some of the worst races of his career on off tracks. Then again, he ran some inexplicably bad ones on fast tracks as well.

There are gray areas to this story, though. How does one reconcile this belief regarding Riva's lack of off-track prowess and his record as a two-year-old, when he blitzed six furlongs in 1:09 4/5 winning the $34,000 Flash at Saratoga on a good track, and later won the $153,000 Champagne at Belmont Park over a sloppy track against a field that included future nemesis and all-around mudlark Key to the Mint? 

While his views likely changed as more evidence was compiled, trainer Lucien Laurin was hard-pressed to blame track condition for Riva Ridge's loss in the immediate aftermath of the Preakness. Laurin issued a statement addressing the result, as well as the decision to scratch mud-loving entrymate Upper Case from the Preakness while keeping Riva Ridge in, which the Chicago Tribune's Neil Milbert quoted verbatim:

Article Image

In addition to the track surface, what might else explain Riva Ridge's performance? He was a horse that certainly benefited from favorable trips in both his Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes wins, leading wire-to-wire in both while setting a moderate pace. Whether it was the track condition or the result of a slightly awkward start, neither Riva Ridge nor jockey Ron Turcotte showed little interest in doing the same at Pimlico. Instead, it was Bee Bee Bee who was able to parlay a front-running trip, with each quarter slower than the one before, into an upset victory.

Swale (1984)

Like Riva Ridge, Swale was the beneficiary of favorable pace scenarios in winning the Kentucky Derby and Belmont, rating close to a moderate pace before seizing control at Churchill Downs and leading all the way at Belmont while setting soft fractions.

Things were much different in Baltimore. Swale was caught wide chasing a blistering pace of :45 1/5 and 1:09 1/5, and readily backed out approaching the stretch. As noted by Andrew Beyer in "Beyer on Speed," Swale's outside journey was also unfavorable as the inside paths near the rail were the place to be at Pimlico that day.

Also worth noting is that Swale worked seven furlongs in 1:24 the weekend between the Derby and Preakness, a strong move that certainly could've taken too much out of him.

Fusaichi Pegasus (2000) & Orb (2013)

Both Fusaichi Pegasus and Orb enjoyed trouble-free rallies from near the back of their respective Derby fields while simultaneously aided by a fast pace. Their performances looked so good, and their Preakness competition relatively suspect, that they were heavily backed to repeat.

However, Fusaichi Pegasus reportedly struggled to get a hold of the damp Pimlico surface and lost to Red Bullet while barely salvaging the runner-up spot, and Orb never mustered any kind of rally as Oxbow set a moderate pace en route to a wire-to-wire upset.

Only in retrospect can we pose the theory that Fusaichi Pegasus and Orb, perhaps, weren't quite what most thought they were at the time. "FuPeg" would only race two more times after the Preakness, winning the Jerome H. (G2) but faltering in the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) at Churchill and losing the three-year-old championship to Tiznow. Orb never won in three subsequent starts and also was not named divisional champion.


The takeaway from this small historical sample is that common excuses that occur at every racetrack every day -- unfavorable track conditions, pace flow, or simple lack of relative class in general or on the day -- have the ability to trip up even the strongest-looking horse on paper in a big-time race like the Preakness.

Are any of these factors strong enough to potentially derail Nyquist's Triple Crown bid? He's never run on anything worse than a good track, but even an unlikely repeat of last year's biblical rainstorm that hit Pimlico before the Preakness perhaps shouldn't be too much cause for concern given his pedigree and running style.

Is there a better three-year-old out there? It's hard to make that argument about Exaggerator or any of the new shooters at this point, and note that even Red Bullet and Oxbow, who pulled off upsets earlier this century, didn't turn out to be championship material either.

Did Nyquist enjoy a favorable trip in the Derby? He certainly worked out a smooth one, but found himself chasing a pace that was faster than most expected. He had every right to quit, as many of those that raced close to the front did, but he's justly received accolades for the performance having run so close to a taxing pace yet showing no sign that it affected him in the least. That's a mark of a true champion.

Nyquist sure looks like the real deal, yet there is a sliver of hope for someone else if we have a repeat of 1984. If Nyquist gets sucked into tracking a pace that's rather lively set by, say, Laoban and/or Uncle Lino, there's always that chance the favorite could be softened up enough to leave him vulnerable in the stretch.

With less than a week to go, a situation like this might be the best hope his rivals have of stopping Nyquist in his tracks.