OCEANPORT, N.J. – In a race eerily reminiscent of the Preakness, which also was run over a sloppy track, Exaggerator made a middle move to contention on the backstretch of the Haskell Invitational, then forged to the front in upper stretch to upset Nyquist in a major 3-year-old stakes at Monmouth Park on Sunday.
The difference, though, is Exagerrator’s Preakness victory moved him to near the top of the 3-year-old division. In the Haskell, he arguably grabbed the No. 1 spot.
“We’ve won three Grade 1 races this year now,” said Matt Bryan, the principal of Big Chief Racing, a co-owner of Exaggerator. “I feel like we have a leg up now.”
In the Haskell, Nyquist, Awesome Slew, Gun Runner, and American Freedom all showed speed from the gate. Entering the first turn, American Freedom was fanned four wide and Gun Runner dropped back off the pace after racing three wide between horses. The quarter went in a quick 22.78 seconds.
On the backstretch, American Freedom took a short lead outside Nyquist with Awesome Speed and Gun Runner racing behind them. At this point, Exaggerator, who was last early, began a steady advance while racing well out in the track under jockey Kent Desormeaux.
“From the three-quarter pole to the half-mile pole I wasn’t asking him to go anywhere, he was just galloping,” Desormeaux said.
Desormeaux took a light hold of Exaggerator on the far turn, while American Freedom and Nyquist continued to duke it out on the lead through fractions of 46.62 and 1:11, with Gun Runner looming three wide.
“It got to the point that I thought I was going to get there too soon, so I slowed him down,” Desormeaux said.
Nearing the furlong pole, American Freedom, with Rafael Bejarano up, began to get the best of Nyquist and jockey Mario Gutierrez.
Exaggerator forged to the front from the outside and he and American Freedom came close to making contact as Exaggerator went by. Exaggerator then came inward in front of American Freedom while drawing away to win by 1 1/2 lengths.
Bejarano lodged a claim of foul against American Freedom and Desormeaux for interference in the stretch, but it was not allowed.
After the race, an angry Bejarano said, “This guy, he always does that. Whenever he’s outside he always comes in, and he crossed over on me. It cost me the race, you know.”
Desormeaux said he and American Freedom did not make contact and that “it was a big race. Once I was clear, of course I came over and kicked some mud back at him.”
American Freedom held second by two lengths over 31-1 shot Sunny Ridge, who bested Nyquist for third by a neck. Gun Runner finished fifth while Awesome Slew, who was close-up early, tired badly to be last in the six-horse field.
Exaggerator has now won the Santa Anita Derby, Preakness, and Haskell this year for trainer Keith Desormeaux. He finished second in the Kentucky Derby to Nyquist, who also won the Florida Derby.
At a post race press conference, Julie Clark, Desormeaux’s assistant trainer, said “we’ve talked about the Travers being the next race, and I haven’t heard anything different. We are headed back to Saratoga tomorrow.”
Keith Desormeaux, who watched the race in California, told TVG, “I will absolutely consider the Travers at Saratoga for him next.”
American Freedom could also be Travers-bound, according to trainer Bob Baffert, who also watched the race at Del Mar.
“We’ll decide tomorrow whether to bring him back home or send him to Saratoga,” Baffert said by phone. “We’re probably going to the Travers.”
Doug O’Neill, the trainer of Nyquist, had no excuses after the race.
“We will regroup, see how he comes out of it and go from there,” O’Neill said. “I thought Mario rode him perfectly. That’s how he had to ride, with confidence.”
Exaggerator paid $7.20 to win as the second choice behind even-money favorite Nyquist. Exaggerator is now four for five over wet tracks in his career. He covered 1 1/8 mile in 1:48.70.
The Haskell was Exaggerator’s first start since he tired badly to finish 11th of 13 horses in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes. He remained at Belmont with Clark overseeing his training after that race.
“He was gassed after the Belmont,” Clark said. “He was as slow to recover after a race as I’ve seen. It took him about a week to recover.”
Exaggerator was put back in training at Belmont and worked a slow half-mile there July 9. He was then sent to Saratoga, where he worked five furlongs July 16 and six furlongs July 23.
Exaggerator was originally being pointed to the Travers, but on Wednesday a decision was made to re-route him to the Haskell.
“We were talking for two weeks trying to decide where to go,” said Bryan, his owner.
Clark explained that Exaggerator had not been visually impressive in his Saratoga works, which played a part in the decision to come to the Haskell. She said in his first work, Exaggerator started looking around in the stretch and the jockey had to pump on him. She said the track was playing slow in his second work.
“He actually started training better once we got him to Saratoga,” Clark said. “I don’t think the heavy Belmont going was to his liking.”