Big Chief Racing, Head of Plains Partners, and Rocker O Ranch's Exaggerator continued to show his affinity for off tracks with a sweeping, off-the-pace victory in the $1 million Betfair.com Haskell Invitational (gr. I) July 31 at Monmouth Park.
Ridden by Kent Desormeaux for his brother, trainer Keith Desormeaux, Exaggerator got away last in the six-horse field but gained on the backstretch through fast fractions on a main track rated sloppy. An early pace battle between favored Nyquist and American Freedom laid the groundwork for the Curlin colt to quickly reel in the leaders and pull away to win his third grade I stakes.
Exaggerator had to survive a claim of foul from jockey Rafael Bejarano, who was aboard American Freedom. The Bob Baffert trainee, in a strong effort, put away Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) winner Nyquist in the lane and appeared to check briefly when Exaggerator blew by on the outside.
American Freedom ran on for second, 1 1/2 lengths behind Exaggerator, with New Jersey-bred Sunny Ridge another two lengths back in third and Nyquist fourth. Exaggerator, who won the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) on a sloppy surface but finished 11th as the favorite in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (gr. I), paid $7.60 to win as the second choice. Exaggerator covered the 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.70.
The result of the Haskell most likely was determined in the first half-mile. Nyquist, who broke from the rail, was sent early as was Awesome Slew, American Freedom, and Gun Runner. The leaders were bunched through an opening quarter-mile in :22.78, and by the time they clocked a half-mile in :46.62, the battle was left to Nyquist and American Freedom.
American Freedom, owned by Gary and Mary West, edged past Nyquist on the backstretch and had the lead after six furlongs in 1:11, but Nyquist, who hadn't raced since his gritty third-place finish in the Preakness, fought back along the inside. American Freedom finally got past Nyquist soon after the field turned for home, but Exaggerator ran past before one mile was covered in 1:35.96.
"When he came around me, he crossed me a couple times," Bejarano said. "I had to change my course in the stretch and then let him run again. I'm completely disappointed. We are hoping everyone had a clean race, in such a prestigious race, and he definitely crossed my lane and I had to change my course."
Despite the incident, Baffert indicated he's pleased with the Pulpit colt's effort.
"He was stuck outside (in post 5) and I told (Bejarano) to ride his race," Baffert told TVG from Del Mar. "I'm proud of the fact American Freedom can run those big horses. He's doing well and moving forward.
"I think I'm leaning toward the Travers with him right now. I like that race, but I'll feel more comfortable bringing him home first. I really like what I saw today."
Jockey Florent Geroux suggested Gun Runner, winner of the Lousiana Derby (gr. II), may not care for an off track. His only other worse-than-third effort came last year in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) on a sloppy track.
"If you look at his races, the only two he didn't run his best races was over the slop," Geroux said. "It took me a little longer to get the position I wanted, but up the backside everything was perfect. He just didn't run his race today."
Exaggerator, who now has six wins, three seconds, and one third in 13 starts, finished behind Nyquist three times before his victory in the Preakness. Nyquist skipped the Belmont, and Kent Desormeaux blamed himself for the colt's off-the-board finish at Belmont Park.
"This race set up early like the Preakness," he said. "It came down to what was the best part of the track. Exaggerator showed an exemplary turn of foot. He just took off when I threw the 'helicopter' at him. The major difference today (was the pace). I take full blame for the Belmont. We probably should have been 10 (lengths) in front, just galloping."
Exaggerator, bred in Kentucky by Joseph Murphy out of the Vindication mare Dawn Raid, was a $110,000 purchase at the 2014 Keeneland September yearling sale.
"We had a lot of confidence in the horse on this track," said Julie Clark, assistant to trainer Desormeaux. "Obviously he loves the off going and that's great and it worked in our favor. I talked to Keith after the race and he said that it set up as he hoped and Kent brought him home.
"Immediately after the Belmont he was as slow to recover as I've seen him get. In the test barn he was gassed. But in a week, he bounced back and was 100%.He was on his toes and ready for a challenge. He'll head back up to Saratoga (Aug. 1) and train up there. We'll point for the Travers (on Aug. 27)."