Sunday, May 8, 2016

Can Nyquist Go Undefeated?

I love to watch horse racing.

Going to the races at Oaklawn in Hot Springs was one of my favorite off–day activities when I worked on the sports desk at the Arkansas Gazette. I was off Mondays and Tuesdays in those days; while there was much about that schedule that I disliked the rest of the time, I really preferred it during racing season. If the weather was nice, a Monday or a Tuesday at Oaklawn Park was impossible to beat. The crowds were small so I didn't have to stand in line to do anything like place a bet, buy a beer, get a sandwich or use the restroom. The horses were the dregs of their stables, but that just made the races more interesting.

I like to watch the Triple Crown races, too, but I have always watched them on TV. I have never been to any of the Triple Crown races, but it is always fun for me simply to watch the TV coverage. The fact that I haven't seen one in person hasn't bothered me.

I don't have a bucket list — but if I did, going to Churchill Downs on Derby Day would be on it. I wouldn't even have to go inside and watch the race. I'd rather watch the people. That was probably my favorite thing to do at Oaklawn, and, judging from what I typically see in the pre–race TV coverage on Derby Day, the people at Churchill Downs are always 10 times — nay, 100 times — more interesting than the folks at Oaklawn ever were.

Sometimes the races are pretty good, too.

Like the one that was run yesterday.

It was an exciting race, ultimately won by the 3–to–1 favorite, an undefeated horse named Nyquist. If Nyquist wins the Triple Crown, he will be the second Triple Crown winner to have an unblemished record. The first was Seattle Slew.

Conventional wisdom says Nyquist probably will win the second jewel of the Triple Crown, the Preakness, which will be run a week from this Saturday (May 21). The distances of the Derby and the Preakness are the same, and the races tend to attract the same fields. There are variables, of course. Sometimes jockeys change, sometimes horses drop out and new ones are inserted, and sometimes the conditions are different (one race may be on a fast track, the other may be on a sloppy track).

But generally speaking the Derby winner is the favorite and usually prevails.

If that holds true this time, then it will be the Belmont, which will be held on June 11, that will make or break Nyquist. It is often called the "Test of Champions" because it is considerably longer than the first two Triple Crown races. Indeed, it is probably the longest race any of the horses that compete in it will ever run.

Thus, while the first two races of the Triple Crown favor speed horses, the final race favors endurance horses. Most horses fall in one category or the other. It is rare to find a combination of speed and endurance within the same horse — but those horses that do combine them usually win the Triple Crown.

With yesterday's victory, Nyquist has established himself as a speed horse on a big–time stage. I expect him to duplicate his achievement in Maryland in two weeks.

Then the question will be whether he is one of those rare horses that combine speed and endurance. The answer will come on the track at the Belmont.

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