A Day at the Preakness

- -

The rain came down. The screens went up.

Homeboykris lay behind the screens, the winner of the first, dead before the second.

It wasn’t how Preakness Day was meant to begin. The annual two-day celebration of national horses on the local stage, it’s the one time to appreciate the fading elegance of Pimlico Racecourse. It’s a time to embrace old friends, watch some races, enjoy the sport, see if we’ll have three weeks of freedom on the way to the Belmont Stakes with a Triple Crown on the line.

We shook our heads. Tough game.

Four races later, Pramedya busted through the front of the starting gate as her nine rivals stood still for an allowance turf race. Roy and Gretchen Jackson’s blue, green and white silks in the distance, ricocheting against the gray backdrop. “Man, doesn’t that remind you of Barbaro,” we said from the cover of the grandstand awning, feet away from the winner’s circle. Minutes later, the 4-year-old filly was gone, too, breaking down on the far turn. The Jacksons walked past, ashen. Trainer Arnaud Delacour picked at a scab near his chin while walking to the track, nowhere is a better place to be.

Four races. Two deaths. Tough game.  

The rain let up. Stakes horses sprinted on the dirt, went long on the turf, sprinted on the turf, went long on the dirt. All the horses stood up, walked home. The rain stopped, then came back.

Not the torrent, Armageddon rain that crashed down last year, the rain that American Pharoah overcame in his tour de force, his front-running leap of the tollbooth – the Preakness – the tollbooth of American racing. Win the Derby, get through the tollbooth, then throw your last wad of cash on the table and see what happens in the Belmont Stakes.

That’s how it’s meant to be. When it comes to the Triple Crown, the Preakness isn’t so much celebrated as it is suffered. The tollbooth before the highway.

This year’s Preakness lured just three horses from the Kentucky Derby. Winner Nyquist, still undefeated. Exaggerator, second in the Derby, still chasing Nyquist. And the mercurial American-bred, Japanese-owned Lani. That’s it, the rest wilted from the Derby or waited for the Belmont. Of the newcomers, Stradivari attracted support after two dominant wins while representing the Todd Pletcher juggernaut. The others were an eclectic mix of locals and late bloomers.

On a sloppy, sealed racetrack, Nyquist broke well from post 3, jockey Mario Gutierrez nudged the 3-year-old son of Uncle Mo for a few strides, placing him in a sandwich between longshots Uncle Lino from the inside and Awesome Speed from the outside. Like a tomato slipping out of the sandwich, Nyquist continued to rush as Gutierrez looked over his right shoulder, trying to get outside into the first turn. By the turn, Nyquist was indeed outside, but with urgency rather than aplomb.

Fans groaned long before announcer Dave Rodman announced the quarter-mile split of 22.38.

“Wicked pace,” Rodman screamed. “Wicked pace, indeed.”

Nyquist separated slightly from Uncle Lino as the field went from stretched to squeezed going down the backstretch. Hall of Famer Kent Desormeaux guided Exaggerator along the rail, inside five rivals and to the heels of Nyquist and Uncle Lino. Tapping on the brakes and gunning the gas at the same time, Desormeaux had gotten there quickly.

“From the three-eighths to the quarter pole I was actually slowing him down, asking him to wait,” Desormeaux said. “And he just blew up and felt like King Kong.”

Desormeaux waited and then shifted Exaggerator between Nyquist to his left and Stradivari to his right as the field turned for home.

Another clash between Nyquist and Exaggerator flamed. And then snuffed. It was over in strides rather than furlongs, as Exaggerator powered through the slop, stretching his lead with every stride and cruising across the wire in a 3 ½ length romp. Cherry Wine closed from well back to nail Nyquist in the final stride. Stradivari hung tough to finish fourth and Lani rallied yet again to finish fifth. Exaggerator completed 1 3/16-miles in 1:58.31.

Returning to Pimlico, where he began his Hall of Fame career, Kent Desormeaux credited local knowledge for the win, scraping paint on the inside while Nyquist sprayed paint on the outside.

“Knowledge is power,” Desormeaux said.

On a bittersweet day at Pimlico, Exaggerator was power.

Owned by Big Chief Racing, Head of Plains Partners, Rocker O Ranch, et al, Exaggerator flipped the table on Nyquist, slaying the 2-year-old champion for the first time in his fifth attempt. Trained by Keith Desormeaux, the $110,000 Keeneland yearling purchase improved his record to five wins from 11 starts for nearly $3 million in earnings.

For the horse, it was redemption, finally vanquishing a rival who had morphed him in their four previous meetings. For Matt Bryan and the rest of the owners, it was culmination. For Keith and Kent Desormeaux, it was brotherly love on the biggest stage.

“For all those people who say you’ve got to be a king to be in this sport, look at my brother and me, we’re living the dream,” Kent said. “We were raised to do this, we didn’t know it would be at this level, but we’re living the dream doing this kind of stuff. A race like this for my brother, we used to jump on Shetland ponies and take them for a spin around the backyard. Crazy.”

Keith Desormeaux handled the emotion of the moment with composure, smiling at their achievement.

“Brotherly love,” Keith said. “I don’t know, is it different than any other kind of love? When you know you have that type of love, you don’t need to show it outwardly. We know what we have.”

They had a Preakness win.

At the end of the day, as rain continued to fall, Keith Desormeaux walked back to the stakes barn, Kent Desormeaux walked to the jocks’ room and another Preakness day had turned to night. Two dead. Three if you count the Triple Crown.

– Originally published in The Irish Field.