Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners
With the 2016 Triple Crown season in the rearview mirror, the Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” season is in full gear. While international “Win and You’re In” Challenge Series races for this year’s event have been taking place since January, the first U.S. race of the year was the June 4 Shoemaker Mile Stakes, with other North American races coming fast and furious after that.
In this week’s Getting to Know feature, we focus on Exaggerator, winner of the $1-million betfair.com Haskell Invitational Stakes and a place in the Breeders’ Cup Classic starting gate.
Nearly every crop of 3-year-olds has a horse that seems to show up for every dance and run well. This year, that horse is Exaggerator, the winner of five graded stakes in addition to placing in four others.
After earning his first career victory by a nose on July 25 at Del Mar last year, the colt headed to the graded stakes level and he’s competed at that level ever since.
Trainer Keith Desormeaux shipped the Curlin colt to Saratoga Race Course, where he was entered in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special Stakes in August 2015. That was the first time Exaggerator visited the winner’s circle in a graded stakes after beating Saratoga Mischief by three-quarters of a length. Next up was a trip to Kentucky so Exaggerator could get a run at Keeneland Race Course before the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.
With a little over a furlong left in Keeneland’s Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity, it looked like Exaggerator would get his first Grade 1 win. But Brody’s Cause made up six lengths in the stretch to win by a length with Exaggerator beating the third-placed Rated R Superstar by 1 ¾ lengths.
The Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile was the second time Exaggerator would meet up with Nyquist after finishing fifth behind him in his debut. But facing some of the best 2-year-olds in the world in the Juvenile, Exaggerator had some tough luck early on in the race when he was forced out. But Exaggerator recovered, easily settled in midpack and made a challenge in the stretch before finishing fourth behind Nyquist, beaten by three lengths.
While several Juvenile runners took the rest of the year off, Exaggerator headed to Louisiana for his next race in the $1-milion Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes.
Making his sixth start at his fifth different track of the year, Exaggerator showed a different dimension when he took the lead as the field entered the first turn. From there, he was pressured by Sunny Ridge and Iron Dome. Into the far turn, Sunny Ridge took a brief lead but conceded it back to Exaggerator before challenging him throughout the stretch run with Exaggerator running a little greenly. At the finish line, Sunny Ridge was gaining on him but Exaggerator was able to hold on by a neck to take home the $600,000 winner’s share on a muddy track.
After running six races in a little under six months, Exaggerator was given a winter break from the races for three months but faced a tough task in his return in February when taking on Nyquist in the Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes at seven-eighths of a mile.
In a small field of five, Exaggerator was only about a length behind Nyquist through the early stages of the race. Exaggerator engaged the previous year’s champion 2-year-old male in the stretch but wasn’t able to stick with him, finishing second. From there, Exaggerator headed to the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes and closed from last, nearly nine lengths behind Danzing Candy, to take third, 2 ¾ lengths behind the winner.
Mother Nature set the track up perfectly for Exaggerator to show off his skills in the Santa Anita Derby as his final prep race for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands. Running on a track rated as sloppy, Exaggerator dropped more than 16 lengths behind the front-running Danzing Candy as he settled second to last. Danzing Candy flew through the early fractions with Exaggerator not really making much of a move until mid-backstretch, when jockey Kent Desormeaux asked him to go. Showing a big turn of foot, Exaggerator went wide around the turn to fly past the leaders at the top of the stretch. In the stretch, it was just an exhibition with no rival close to Exaggerator as he pulled away to win by 6 ¼ lengths in his first try at 1 1/8 miles.
SANTA ANITA DERBY
The Santa Anita Derby win allowed Exaggerator to come into the Kentucky Derby with a big confidence boost. That confidence also carried over to bettors who made him the only horse at single digit odds other than the favored Nyquist. A faster pace on the front end set up well for Exaggerator, who was near the back of the field early on before steadily making up ground near the end of the backstretch. By the top of the stretch, he was nine lengths behind the leaders after making up more than eight lengths and only improved from there, finishing 1 ¼ lengths behind the winning Nyquist while finishing second.
Shipping to Pimlico for the Preakness Stakes, Exaggerator looked to turn the tables on Nyquist for the first time after losing to that rival in their four previous matchups. A sloppy track was a welcome sight to the people behind Big Chief Racing, Head of Plains Partners, and Rocker O Ranch, members of the partnership that owns Exaggerator, the day of the Preakness. Breaking from the gate at 6:52 p.m. ET, Exaggerator dropped 11 ½ lengths behind the leading Uncle Lino at the first call as the leaders dueled up front. Kent Desormeaux asked Exaggerator to get a little closer on the backstretch and the colt responded, cutting the lead down to about six lengths as the leaders continued to duel. Exaggerator rode the rail in the turn but in a bid for running room swung to the outside as they entered the stretch. For the first time in his career, Exaggerator passed Nyquist and won by 3 ½ lengths with Cherry Wine just nosing out Nyquist for second.
“It’s called an American classic for a reason,” trainer Keith Desormeaux said after the race. “To get to win one is hard to describe. It’s the culmination of a lifetime of dedicating myself to finding the best horse and getting the most out of him.”
Exaggerator put in the worst start of his career in the Belmont three weeks later, finishing 11th of 13, and got nearly two months off before the Haskell.
With a speedy field in front of him and a sloppy track below him, Exaggerator broke from the outside post and quickly fell behind the rest of the field to take over a spot near the rail. Again, Nyquist battled up front as Exaggerator lollygagged more than eight lengths behind the leaders. But as they entered the backstretch, Exaggerator woke up and quickly caught up to the pack, racing in fourth, a few lengths behind the leader. Going four wide into the turn, Exaggerator caught up to the dueling leaders and within a few strides went right on by to win by 1 ½ lengths. American Freedom finished second, Delta Downs Jackpot rival Sunny Ridge was third and Nyquist ran fourth. The victory gave Exaggerator three Grade 1 wins in addition to earning him a spot in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
When thinking about Exaggerator’s chances in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the first thing that must be talked about is his love for off tracks. He has won a Grade 2 on a fast track but it can’t be ignored that his biggest wins have come in the slop. He obviously got some rain in the Santa Anita Derby at the same track he’ll be running on in the Classic but none of the Breeders’ Cup Classics in California has come on a wet track (a few were during the synthetic era when the tracks were always labeled fast).
However, while Exaggerator has done best on muddy or sloppy tracks, he’s also finished on the board (including two wins) in five races on fast tracks, so he can obviously handle better surfaces. The Breeders’ Cup Classic should also have some speed, especially if “Win and You’re In” berth winner Bradester decides to go there instead of the Las Vegas Dirt Mile.
The biggest question this time of year is how the 3-year-olds will fare when they face elders, especially in a year like this with California Chrome running. Until some of the 3-year-olds face the older horses, we don’t really have a baseline for how the crop stacks up, so it’s hard to tell just how good Exaggerator’s chances are in the Classic. But if they are indeed competitive with the older crowd, Exaggerator looks like he’ll have a good shot in the Classic in November.
These days it seems like it’s all Curlin, all the time. Last weekend, Curlin had four stakes winners in a little over 48 hours including two Grade 1 winners with Stellar Wind beating Beholder Saturday night and Exaggerator winning the Haskell on Sunday.
A two-time Horse of the Year, Curlin got off to a somewhat slow start at stud with Palace Malice giving the stallion his first stakes winner when winning the Belmont Stakes in June of 2013. Since then, Curlin has turned into a top-class sire with 27 stakes winners as of Aug. 1, including last year’s champion 3-year-old filly Stellar Wind.
Curlin won many of the biggest route races in the world during his career, so it’s not surprising that his runners are effective at longer distances. That stamina has helped his runners in the Triple Crown races with Curlin having a classic-placed horse in each of his crops with Ride On Curlin earning a runner-up finish in the 2014 Preakness and 2015 Belmont third-place finisher Keen Ice, in addition to his two winners. While most of Curlin’s stakes runners are performing best at a mile and longer, he does have stakes performers at shorter distances, including Off the Tracks winning the Margate Handicap at 6 ½ furlongs this year before winning the Grade 1 Mother Goose Stakes a few months later.
Exaggerator is out of the Vindication mare Dawn Raid, who was a track record setter at Woodbine and finished third in a Woodbine stakes race. Of her three foals to race, all three have won with Exaggerator getting the first stakes victory on her record.
Dawn Raid is a half-sister (same dam [mother], different sire [father]) to Canadian champion Embur’s Song and stakes winner Ten Flat. Overall, Dawn Raid’s features 21 stakes-placed horses and eight stakes winners under Exaggerator’s first four dams.
There are admittedly questions still surrounding both Exaggerator and this 3-year-old class going into this fall’s races, but if Exaggerator continues to improve in coming months it is easy to see him at least hitting the board in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and potentially getting the last laugh in his rivalry with Nyquist.