BALTIMORE — Doug O’Neill was clapping feverishly as Nyquist charged to the finish line, a Triple Crown still within striking distance.
Finally, when it became apparent that Exaggerator had finally gotten the best of Nyquist, O’Neill dropped his hands to his side and shrugged his shoulders in defeat.
It was a scenario that had never occurred before. Eight times previously, O’Neill, the confident trainer of Nyquist, ended up in the winner’s circle with his talented colt.
Not Saturday, not in this Preakness. Exaggerator gained the lead in the stretch against a fading champion and won the race by 3 1/2 lengths.
Nyquist finished third, a nose behind Cherry Wine.
“I didn’t think we could get beat, to be honest with you,” O’Neill said. “Nyquist is such an amazing horse. He still ran a great race.”
In the two weeks since he won the Kentucky Derby, O’Neill rattled off the virtues of his unbeaten star. The public bought into it: Not only was Nyquist the 3-5 betting favorite, but a record crowd of 135,256 showed up in miserable weather.
O’Neill insisted on Friday that rain wouldn’t be a factor, and perhaps it wasn’t. But for the first time in nine career races, Nyquist ran on a sloppy track.
And for the first time, he lost.
“We’ll kind of figure this all out, watch some replays,” O’Neill said.
Four times previously, Nyquist beat Exaggerator. Someone asked Exaggerator trainer Keith Desormeaux if his horse finally wore down Nyquist.
“I always felt we had an exceptional talent in Exaggerator,” Desormeaux said. “It’s not someone who needs to grind down his opponent.”
O’Neill, Nyquist jockey Mario Gutierrez and owner Paul Reddam teamed in 2012 to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with I’ll Have Another.
On this day, they had to settle for third.
“I really didn’t get a chance to talk to Mario,” O’Neill said. “But Nyquist still ran a huge race. Big effort.”
Winning jockey Kent Desormeaux wondered if Nyquist was done in by taking a difficult path to the finish line.
“I think Nyquist had company all the around the course,” the jockey said. “They stayed really wide. These turns, you want to paint the fence. We did, they didn’t and, not for nothing, but knowledge is power.”
Gutierrez said, “I could feel Exaggerator coming. There was nothing we could do. We tried but just didn’t get there.”
Afterward, O’Neill was stunned to have lost but grateful to have gone this far with an undefeated horse.
“It’s a bummer, of course,” he said. “I can’t wait to see him in a little bit, give him a big kiss and pat him on the head because he’s still a winner in our book
“They’re not machines. Being 8 for 8, we kept thinking that this horse is never going to lose. But they all lose one time or another. We’ll be OK.”
If all goes as planned, the Nyquist and Exaggerator will meet again at the Belmont on June 11.
“It looked like he came back to be unsaddled in good shape,” O’Neill said. “So maybe we’ll try again.”