By Tom Pedulla
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Trainer Keith Desormeaux, speaking the morning before the Travers Stakes, could sense how close Exaggerator was to securing the Eclipse Award as the leading 3-year-old colt in North America. The colt was close enough to the coveted bronze statue that Desrmeaux could almost touch it.
Desormeaux recalled how impressive Exaggerator was when he launched a four-wide rally and easily ran down American Freedom by a length and a half in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on July 31.
“As soon as he crossed the line in the Haskell, he had to go to the head of the class,” Desormeaux said. “If he wins the Travers, I think that would seal the deal.”
Everything changed in 1:59.36, the breathtaking stakes and track record time it took for Arrogate to demolish the Travers field by 13 ½ lengths, leaving stablemate American Freedom, third-place Gun Runner and 11 other hopefuls without hope.
Exaggerator added to what has become a perplexing profile for Eclipse Award voters by finishing a distant 11th, the same no-excuse result he was left with in the Belmont Stakes after winning the Preakness and placing second to Nyquist in the Kentucky Derby.
Exaggerator may still be at the head of the class. But it is fair to say that his margin was slashed in the Travers, leaving him no more margin for error. Some voters will be uncomfortable that the son of Curlin gained all of his major victories on a sloppy track. He splashed home by 6 ¼ lengths in the Santa Anita Derby, relished the mud during a 3 ½-length score in the Preakness and again all but danced home in the slop in the Haskell.
The Travers outcome provided renewed hope for Nyquist for year-end honors. Yes, he trailed Exaggerator in third in the Preakness and ran such a lackluster fourth in the Haskell that trainer Doug O’Neill never seriously considered the Travers, the “Mid-Summer Derby,” and opted instead to freshen his 2-year-old champion.
On a fast track, though, Nyquist opened his season by besting Exaggerator by a length and a half in the seven-furlong San Vincente. Above all, he enjoys the undeniable cachet of being the Kentucky Derby winner. Exaggerator was a fast-closing second in the Run for the Roses.
Arrogate enjoys the benefit of being the now horse. In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, his most recent accomplishment was spectacular for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. Even American Pharoah, who retired at the end of last season as the first horse to sweep the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup Classic, never staged such a sensational show.
“Maybe this horse will take the sting out of not having him around,” Baffert said, referring to American Pharoah. ”What we saw (Saturday) at least gave us a little hope. Every time I have a horse like Pharoah, when he leaves, I think, ‘Damn, I’ll never have anything close to him at all. And then this horse goes out and does that.”
After Pharoah was upset by Keen Ice in last year’s Travers, Baffert regrouped and trained him up to a dominant effort in the Classic in another display of his brilliance as a horseman. He knows he will need to back off Arrogate after such a huge effort in his fifth career start before looking for an encore from him in the Classic on Nov. 5 at Santa Anita. A stellar performance against older horses could be enough to bring home 3-year-old honors, no matter how little he did before he ran the fastest Travers in the race’s 147-year history.
Desormeaux said on Sunday that he will point Exaggerator toward the Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing near Philadelphia on Sept. 24. O’Neill is targeting that race for Nyquist as well. Both camps recognize the need to add to their resumes after a game-changing Travers.