Preakness: Handicapping for a wet track

With rain in the forecast for Saturday at Pimlico, there stands a pretty good chance that the main track will end up something south of “fast” for the Preakness, adding yet another wrinkle when trying to handicap the middle leg of the Triple Crown.

The key question is how much an off track might affect the outcome of the race, most notably the chances of the odds-on favorite, Nyquist, in his attempt to remain undefeated and move on to Belmont Park with an opportunity to sweep the Triple Crown.

Without getting into too many particulars, it’s safe to say that all wet tracks are not created equal. And it remains to be seen just how the Pimlico course will handle whatever precipitation comes Saturday, making it hard to predict which running style might benefit from a cloudburst or two.

Although Nyquist has never competed on a sloppy or muddy track, there was moisture in the surface, which was labeled “good,” when he won the Florida Derby in such impressive fashion at Gulfstream Park earlier this spring. And while the official chart of the Kentucky Derby lists the Churchill Downs strip as “fast,” take it from one who walked across that racetrack less than 10 minutes after the race: It was pretty gooey after having absorbed about 20 minutes of steady rain an hour or so earlier while inexplicably left open, not sealed, prior to the storm.

Nyquist is one of four sons of Uncle Mo in the Preakness. And while his breeding may not scream “mud,” he gives the impression that he’ll handle just about anything. So, it’s unlikely that his form will be drastically affected by an off track Saturday, barring a severe track bias that jockey Mario Gutierrez is unable to avoid.

Obviously, Exaggerator, by Curlin, is a proven commodity on a wet track, with his career-best performance coming in a Santa Anita Derby decided in the slop. That he came right back to turn in a similarly strong effort on Derby Day over something less than a truly fast track confirms that he’s likely to be the major beneficiary should the weatherman’s predictions for Saturday come to pass – although I’m still not convinced that a wet racetrack would be enough to help him avenge his four previous defeats at the hands of Nyquist.

Stradivari, among the many new faces in this race, won his maiden over a very suspect field on a less-than-fast track in his 2-year-old finale at Gulfstream, and he’s got every reason to move up on a wet surface Saturday, being a son of Medaglia d’Oro, who won the Travers in the slop at 3. Whether that’s enough to overcome his relative inexperience remains to be seen.

Although Collected’s only poor effort came on a “good” track in the Southwest Stakes, he is by City Zip, whose offspring are generally regarded to be superior off-track runners. Thus, downgrading his chances because of a wet surface off just that one race could be a mistake.

Other members of this field who have shown an affinity for a wet track are Cherry Wine and Abiding Star, although neither would seem likely to move up enough in the off going, barring an absolutely perfect trip, to grab more than a minor share of the Preakness pie.

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