Is it Safe?
On the first Saturday in May 2016, at Churchill Downs in Louisville, KY, in the 12th race, 3-year-old colt Nyquist won for the eighth time in as many tries. In the process he definitively defeated the most outstanding collection of sophomore equines gathered anywhere on this spinning blue marble this year. With the convincing triumph the son of Uncle Mo figuratively poked his pricked ears and dark brown head out from behind the imposing shadow of last year’s Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.
Like Szell (Laurence Olivier), performing barbaric dentistry on Babe (Dustin Hoffman) in Marathon Man, Nyquist wants to know, “Is it safe?”
The answer returns, “No.”
A comedic punch line delivered closely on the heels of a major disaster often is met with hisses and boos from the audience because it’s ‘too soon.’ The body’s still warm. Here we’re talking about an historic celebratory occasion—the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years—and its perpetrator American Pharoah. Ecstasy lingers. And that can be as powerful an emotion as misery. For another horse to attempt to immediately replace that memory…it’s too soon.
As crazy as it might sound, many fans aren’t prepared to embrace another Triple Crown winner this year. American Pharoah, the magnetic and gracious superstar that treated young, old, healthy and infirmed with the tenderness of Mother Teresa and the social media savvy of a Kardashian, still holds many hearts in his hooves. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise us if in a few years, on the heels of requisite miracles, a sitting pope canonizes him. ‘Saint Pharoah.’ Has an Old Testament ring to it, no?
Truly, American Pharoah was amazing, one of a kind. And that’s exactly the point. He was ‘one of a kind!’ Which is quite different from being ‘one of two of a kind!’
If Nyquist wins in Baltimore, which seems likely, and then triumphs in New York, he will simultaneously elevate himself to superstar status while minimizing a prospective saint’s achievements by duplicating one of them the very next year.
Such is the dilemma before Nyquist and his connections: Win the remaining two legs of the Triple Crown and forever be known as an American Pharoah impersonator, or win the Preakness and fail in Belmont to join an extensive and impressive list of runners who’ve gone 2-for-3 in the series.
All of this really is Steve Coburn’s fault. The Stetson-wearing, Wilfred Brimley-looking, former co-owner of 2014 Triple Crown near-miss California Chrome delivered an all-time great ‘mush’ line when, in the immediate aftermath of an emotionally draining Belmont Stakes defeat, he emphatically announced to a national television audience, “I’m 61 years old and I’ll never see…in my lifetime…I’ll never see another Triple Winner because of the way they do this!”
The next year, the very next freaking year, after a nearly four-decade drought, American Pharoah roared non-stop through Louisville, Baltimore and Elmont, NY like a runaway Amtrak!
And now, in the very next year after that, Nyquist seems poised to romp in Baltimore, setting the stage for another shot at a Triple Crown.
Show biz vets know that following a superstar on stage is career suicide. That’s why you’ve often heard of opening acts but never closing ones.
Nyquist can’t win, even if he does.
He can achieve what merely 12 before him have, but he’ll always remain partially in American Pharoah’s streak-busting shadow. Of course, all modern Triple Crown winners, in some respect, must feel the specter of the incredible Secretariat blocking sunlight.
Is Nyquist a special horse? Yes. He’s an undefeated Kentucky Derby, Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, 2-year-old champion Eclipse Award winner. He’s got speed and sense enough to only use as much of it as is necessary at any particular moment. He should be celebrated as one of the sport’s most exciting performers in years.
However, he’s not getting the respect he deserves and won’t even if he wins the Triple Crown. Why? Because it’s not safe.