A poor breeze and an unhappy trainer, yet Exaggerator stuns them all in the Haskell

Exaggerator: “Keith [Desormeaux] has only liked two works in his career,” says joint owner Matt Bryan. Photo: NYRA.com

Matt Bryan has some words of advice for anyone who takes what Keith Desormeaux says as gospel truth. “Keith is a perfectionist,” Bryan said on Sunday, just minutes removed from watching his Preakness winner, Exaggerator, record a 1 1/2 -length victory in the $1 million G1 Betfair.com Haskell Invitational that capped a rather tumultuous week for all involved with the talented 3-year-old.

In the course of seven eventful days, Exaggerator went from a prime contender for the 3-year-old championship to a horse training poorly after an 11th-place finish, to a Haskell winner and the new leader in the race for an Eclipse Award – all because people took Desormeaux at his word.

You see, last week Desormeaux voiced such displeasure over Exaggerator’s 1:13 4/5 six-furlong breeze at Saratoga on July 23 that he nixed a scheduled start in the G2 Jim Dandy at the Spa on July 30. The 49-year-old trainer even mentioned the possibility of running the Kentucky Derby runner-up in the G1 Travers (Aug. 27) on works alone.

Then Exaggerator’s name appeared among the six entrants in the Haskell at Monmouth Park, which attracted a much tougher field than the Jim Dandy, thanks to the presence of Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist and Gun Runner, who was third in the Run for the Roses.

Adding to the conflicting signals, on race day, when a captivating showdown between the first three finishers in the Kentucky Derby took shape, Desormeaux was nowhere to be found. He was as far away from New Jersey as anyone in the continental United States could be, spending the day on the other coast, at the place where the Turf meets the Surf, none other than Del Mar Racetrack in California.

Talking behind the scenes

It was a confusing road to travel in the minds of some, but for Bryan it made all the sense in the world – especially the happy ending at Monmouth Park on Sunday, triggered by Exaggerator’s last-to-first charge in the colt’s first start since a puzzling 11th-place finish in the Belmont Stakes.

“Keith has only liked two works in Exaggerator’s career,” said Bryan, who owns the colt through his Big Chief Racing LLC, in partnership with Sol Kumin’s Head of Plains Partners LLC and Cody Ortowski’s Rocker O Ranch LLC. “The week before the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the week before the Santa Anita Derby. That was it. Every other work has been too fast, too slow, too something. You can’t listen to everything he says. He’s a perfectionist. There was a lot of talking behind the scenes during the last week and we felt this was a good opportunity for us.”

Good indeed, starting with a strong measure of early speed in the field that complemented Exaggerator’s late kick and ending with a sloppy, sealed racetrack that elevated the colt’s record to four wins and one second in five starts on wet tracks.

The pace surely worked to Exaggerator’s favor as even-money favorite Nyquist shot out to the lead from the rail and was quickly joined by American Freedom (5-1), trainer Bob Baffert’s hopeful for an unprecedented ninth Haskell win, and 32-1 longshot Awesome Slew.

Nearly 10 lengths behind, Exaggerator ($7.60), the 5-2 second choice, lingered in last.

Speed in the race

It may have been a grey, overcast day at the Jersey Shore, but when an opening quarter-mile was posted in a swift 22.78 seconds, Bryan’s smile beamed like the sun in the Sahara Desert.

“When I saw 22 and change for the first quarter, I’m not going to lie to you, I was extremely excited,” Bryan said. “In making the decision to run in the Haskell, it helped that there was speed in this race with Nyquist and American Freedom.”

Midway down the backstretch, American Freedom edged past Nyquist to take a slim lead, but the real action was happening at the back of the small pack as Exaggerator moved into the picture.

“Down the backstretch, my brother must have been panicking there out at Del Mar with the beach and the sand, but (Exaggerator) really just galloped to them with no encouragement,” said jockey Kent Desormeaux, Keith’s younger brother. “By the time we got to the 3/8ths pole, he showed an exemplary turn of foot. Then he really exploded at quarter pole. It felt like déjà vu from the Preakness.”

‘They went too fast’

As Awesome Slew faded to last and American Freedom maintained his lead over Nyquist, Exaggerator joined the two early leaders from the outside at the eighth pole and edged clear. He drifted in slightly in front of American Freedom, whose rider Rafael Bejarano claimed foul to no avail, but he hit the wire clear of his five rivals, covering the mile-and-an-eighth in 1:48.70 to scoop up an automatic spot in the Breeders’ Cup Classic through the “Win and You’re In” program.

“He didn’t come from behind,” Kent Desormeaux said. “They went too fast.”

American Freedom, coming off a decisive victory in the Grade 3 Iowa Derby for Baffert, showed some determination in finishing second two lengths ahead of 31-1 shot Sunny Ridge, who finished a neck in front of the tiring Nyquist.

“The trip was great. The horse was just a little off today,” jockey Mario Gutierrez said about Nyquist. “Any other day, he should have been able to attack the pace. (American Freedom) kept going and I didn’t.”

No longer under Nyquist’s shadow

For the Kentucky Derby winner, while the Haskell may have been his first race since a third-place finish in the Preakness on May 21, it also marked his second straight defeat at the hands of Exaggerator. Heading into the Preakness, Nyquist sported an undefeated 8-for-8 record and had beaten Desormeaux-trained, Bryan-owned horses in seven of them. Exaggerator was 0-for-4 against last year’s 2-year-old champ at that point.

Now the last two meetings have gone to Exaggerator, who owns three G1 wins this year (the Preakness, Haskell and Santa Anita Derby) plus a second in the Kentucky Derby. He is no longer obscured by Nyquist’s shadow.

“I think this gives us a leg up,” Bryan said about the race for the 3-year-old championship. “To be the best 3-year-old, you have to run against the best 3-year-olds, and that’s what we did.”

Needless to say, what happened in the Haskell will be framed by the track condition. All three of Exaggerator’s Grade 1 wins came on wet tracks, and Keith Desormeaux, true to his nature, did not mince words about that.

“It was a repeat of his other wins in the mud,” the trainer told the TVG network.

‘The track was fast’

Bryan, not surprisingly, had a different view of the track.

“This wasn’t sloppy compared to the Preakness,” the 6-foot-4 Texan said. “The mud went down below my ankles when I stepped on the track at Pimlico. This surface had a bottom to it. Look at the fractions. The track was fast. (Exaggerator’s win) didn’t have anything to do with the track surface today. “

If all goes well in the next few weeks, Exaggerator will get a chance to wrap up the 3-year-old crown in the $1.25 million Travers at Saratoga. Bryan called the Mid-Summer Derby “an excellent possibility” for the son of Curlin.

His trainer also spoke about a desire to run in the Travers, yet he was bit more analytical about it.

“I will absolutely consider the Travers at Saratoga for him next,” Desormeaux said during the TVG interview at Del Mar.

Struggling with the track at Saratoga

“That’s where my east coast stable is based. The Travers is a famous race. I hope to see a better style of breeze from him. That’s the reason we went to the Haskell, because of his breeze. He was struggling with the track and hopefully that changes in the upcoming weeks.”

Baffert said American Freedom might join him there. So might most of the crew from the Jim Dandy, including the upset winner, Laoban, as well as Creator and Destin, who beat Exaggerator when they finished 1-2 in the Belmont Stakes, and Governor Malibu, who was second in the Jim Dandy and fourth in the Belmont.

Exaggerator’s uncanny ability to recover quickly from hard races figures to come handy in four weeks at Saratoga. As will a superb effort in the Haskell that painted the Belmont Stakes as a glitch and served as a reminder of just how good Exaggerator can be when he brings his “A” game to the races.

“This was a masterpiece by Keith,” Bryan said.

Of course, asking for the trainer’s opinion about that might lead to a different response. He is, after all, a perfectionist.

Bob Ehalt has won the Bill Handleman Memorial Award for outstanding coverage of the Haskell for his work for ESPN.com on last year’s race (won by American Pharoah). The award honors longtime Astbury Park Press lead sportswriter Bill Handleman, who died in 2010.

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