BALTIMORE – There will be mud.
Too bad the $1.5 million Preakness Stakes wasn't held Friday, when it was 75 and sunny. The forecast is for showers beginning around 5 a.m. Saturday, turning into a steady rain about an hour later. The rain is not expected to let up until late Saturday night. As much as half an inch may soak ancient Pimlico by 5:45 p.m., post time for the big race.
That's very bad news for the infield crowd and the 14-race card's seven turf races, most or all of which are likely to be switched to a sloppy main track and gutted by scratches. Yet for the Preakness' 3-5 morning-line favorite, Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, the nasty forecast is no big deal.
Often, an off track is conducive to upsets, because many top-class thoroughbreds who dominate on fast surfaces can slip and slide on wet ones. Not so for the top two in the 13/16-mile Preakness, Nyquist and 3-1 second choice Exaggerator, both of whom excel in the muck. The 8-for-8 Nyquist coasted by 3¼ lengths last month in the Florida Derby over a drying-out track that had patches of standing water. Exaggerator looked even more impressive in the Santa Anita Derby, splashing to a 6¼-length runaway.
Bob Baffert has trained six Preakness winners, one short of R.W. Walden's record that has stood since 1888. The Hall of Famer who guided American Pharoah to the Triple Crown last year also has a remarkable knack of sensing how a race will shake out. Baffert will try to knock off Nyquist with 10-1 shot Collected, but he thinks the Derby winner will be very tough.
"A wet track is not going to affect Nyquist," Baffert said. "It will affect half of the field. There's so much speed, and there's quality speed. Uncle Lino is quality, my horse is fast, and you've got some other horses who could be fast."
Nyquist is in post 3 in the field of 11, not where trainer Doug O'Neill would have chosen to be. O'Neill said he was hoping to break outside most of the front-runners, but no big deal.
"I think with his gate speed," O'Neill said, "post position is not important."
As long as Nyquist avoids trouble early, expect his cool jockey, Mario Gutierrez, to adapt to the situation. Many handicappers think Gutierrez will track what shapes up as a fast pace and make his move midway on the far turn, just as he did at Churchill Downs. Not Baffert.
"I assume that Nyquist will be on the lead," he said. "The break is going to be the whole key. Nyquist is in a spot down there that if he were to get away slow, it could be bad for him, because he could get caught up in the vacuum there. I'm sure they are going to be aggressive with him."
O'Neill confirmed Baffert's hunch Friday morning, saying, "An ideal trip would be we break great, have the lead and go really easy around there."
Nyquist has been full of energy since moving into Pimlico's stakes barn May 9, two days after the Derby. O'Neill loves how he's been jogging and galloping for exercise rider Jonny Garcia. The son of Uncle Mo's energy level is high, and his trainer, rider and owner, J. Paul Reddam, think he can repeat what I'll Have Another did here for Team O'Neill four years ago.
"We're very optimistic," Gutierrez said. "I think we're very confident. Watching him gallop, it's hard not to be confident. Coming here with a heavy favorite makes me very happy."