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Preakness 2016: Derby winner Nyquist ready for another

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He’ll have another.

Happy, healthy and hangin’ in his new home, Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist is gearing up for another big race, the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore next Saturday.

With a victory, Nyquist would head to the Belmont Stakes in New York three weeks later with a shot at winning the Triple Crown. What a turn of events that would be for horse racing – a record 37-year drought between Triple Crowns followed by back-to-back Triples for only the second time in history.

“He’s full of energy, and looks fantastic,” Nyquist trainer Doug O’Neill said this week as his unbeaten Derby winner settles into his fourth new stall in the past seven weeks. “He should be ready.”

O’Neill likes to say one race at a time, but it’s difficult not to think of the glory that awaits if his brilliant 3-year-old bay colt wins his next two races. Especially since O’Neill, along with owner J. Paul Reddam and jockey Mario Gutierrez – has been on the cusp of history before.

In 2012, O’Neill won the Derby and Preakness with I’ll Have Another, but the horse was retired the day before the Belmont with a tendon injury. A year ago, American Pharoah swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont, a feat many consider the toughest in sports.

Like almost everyone else in racing, O’Neill saw how American Pharoah became the people’s horse, a calm, friendly and gentle colt that thrived on the attention. He’s hoping it can happen again with Nyquist.

“I thought the American Pharoah camp did a wonderful job, and having a horse that thrived on it (the attention) helped,” O’Neill said this week. “And I think Nyquist – they are big shoes to fill – has the ability to fill them if we were to get so fortunate and do what American Pharoah did last year.”

For his part, Pharoah’s owner Ahmed Zayat is all in.

“Let’s have another Triple Crown, back to back,” he said hours after Nyquist’s 1 1/4-length Derby win in a time nearly 2 seconds faster than American Pharoah ran.

But on to the Preakness, where a whole new set of challengers await. Unlike a huge 20-horse field in the longer 1 1/4-mile Derby, the second leg of the Triple Crown has a 14-horse limit, and is run at a shorter distance of 1 3/16 miles.

Back to take on Nyquist is Derby runner-up Exaggerator, a fast-closing second but an exasperating 0 for 4 against Nyquist. In the career debut for both, Exaggerator was fifth behind Nyquist, then fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and second in the San Vicente prior to the Derby.

Kent Desormeaux, the brother of Exaggerator trainer Keith Desormeaux, says “a clear trip” is what it’ll take to turn the tables. The Hall of Fame rider was aboard for three of those losses, and claims he had a troubled trip every time. Which is why, he figures, “I still have a chance.”

Lani, who ran ninth in the Derby, is a definite for the Preakness, with third-place finisher Gun Runner still possible. Lani would become the first Japan-based horse to run in the Preakness.

The list of newcomers is long in a field that could total 12. It includes Laoban and Cherry Wine, a pair of colts who were on the Derby also-eligible list but did not get to run because no horses were late scratches.

Others looking for an upset include possible rising start Stradivari, Lexington Stakes winner Collected, Federico Tesio winner Awesome Speed, California Chrome Stakes winner Uncle Lino and Fellowship, who ran third behind Nyquist in the Florida Derby.

With Collected, trainer Bob Baffert is seeking a record-tying seventh Preakness win. He’s currently tied with D. Wayne Lukas. Robert Wyndham Walden won seven, including five in a row from 1878-1882.

Stradivari is trained by Todd Pletcher and will be ridden by John Velazquez. The lightly-raced son of Medaglia d’Oro will be making his second start of the year and his stakes debut – he’s 2 for 3 overall – but won his last two races by a total of nearly 26 lengths.

“We’re behind in experience and seasoning to quite a few of the competitors in there,” Pletcher said. “But from everything we’ve seen from a talent standpoint, he belongs.”

For now, there seems to be no horse in a class with Nyquist, a perfect 8 for 8 and a presumed heavy favorite when the post-position draw takes place on Wednesday.

Nyquist is the eighth undefeated Derby winner to run in the Preakness, and first since Big Brown won the first two legs in 2008 but was pulled up in the Belmont with a quarter-mile to go and did not finish.

“It looks like the field is going to be tough,” O’Neill said. “It’s going to be a full field and there are a lot of new shooters, so that’s always a concern. But our main focus is on Nyquist’s health. He looks great and has good energy coming off a big win in the Derby. It’s amazing how good he looks.”

Maybe good enough for another.

 

Injured jockey Victor Espinoza plans return to riding

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ARCADIA, Calif. — Triple Crown-winning jockey Victor Espinoza is planning a comeback after fracturing a vertebra in his neck during a training accident at Del Mar.

That’s according to his agent Brian Beach, who says Thursday that Espinoza is expected to see a doctor the first week in October to find out how he is progressing in his recovery from the July 22 accident.

Beach says Espinoza has remained in San Diego, where he goes to rehab sessions three days a week and goes walking three times a day. The 46-year-old Hall of Fame jockey only wears a neck brace when he rides in a car. He isn’t allowed to drive himself yet.

Beach says Espinoza has a “bright outlook” but is frustrated at times because he has been nearly injury-free his entire career and never faced anything this serious.

Espinoza rode American Pharoah to a Triple Crown sweep in 2015.

Churchill Downs’ next project to offer rooftop views of Kentucky Derby

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Churchill Downs is adding rooftop views to its lineup of high-dollar seating for the Kentucky Derby.

The track’s parent company said Friday that a new rooftop garden offering prime spots overlooking the start of America’s most famous horse race will be ready in time for next year’s Derby in early May.

The rooftop lounge, to be situated atop the Starting Gate Suites on the north end of the famed track, will provide covered reserved seating for more than 250 fans and standing-room-only access for about 250 more ticketholders, Churchill Downs Inc. said.

The new space will feature upscale bars and food in a “cozy” and “party-like atmosphere,” Churchill said.

“Rooftop bars are a hot trend in the hospitality industry, and the addition of this sensational new space … will be a great benefit to our facility and deliver another unique guest experience at Churchill Downs,” said Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs racetrack.

Churchill did not disclose Derby ticket prices for the addition, saying ticketing information will be available later this year.

The lounge will include a tiered balcony overlooking the section of track where Derby horses break from the starting gate and, after looping the track, jockey for position at the top of the homestretch on their way to the finish. It also will offer panoramic views of Louisville, the track said.

Construction will begin after Churchill hosts the Breeders’ Cup in early November.

The $5 million rooftop project is the latest in a series of upgrades at the track in the past two decades, meant to maximize revenue from the Derby and Kentucky Oaks, a race for 3-year-old fillies the day before the Derby. The venerable track seems to burst at the seams on Derby Day, when about 160,000 people pack into the track and infield.

Many of the additions have been geared toward well-heeled racing fans.

The Starting Gate Suites debuted for this year’s Derby. The $37 million project provided more than 1,800 new seats through the addition of 32 luxury seats and third-floor grandstand seats. Other projects included renovating the clubhouse and grandstand, putting in permanent lights, creating a new VIP section known as The Mansion and installing of a gigantic video board.