BALTIMORE – Savoring the sloppy track with every stride, Exaggerator finally nailed his biggest rival to win the middle jewel of racing’s Triple Crown in front of a record 135,256 rain-soaked spectators.
Just when racing fans were starting to feel spoiled by two straight Triple Crown attempts, this year’s tease ended abruptly as Exaggerator ($7.20) splashed home to beat his nemesis, Nyquist, in Saturday’s 141st running of the Preakness Stakes.
A light mist was falling over Pimlico Race Course when the coyote finally caught the roadrunner, as Exaggerator utilized the wet-track skills he flashed in the Santa Anita Derby in April. He utilized a ground-saving trip on the rail and took advantage of the early pace to make his explosive move at the quarter pole at just the right moment.
He swept past the Derby winner as they headed down the stretch together. For a moment it looked like the two would duel to the wire, but the fast early pace did in Nyquist, who faded to third, ending his winning streak at eight. Cherry Wine split the two California-based rivals late to complete the exacta that paid $88.40 for $2.
After Exaggerator surged to the lead, Nyquist tried to re-rally and jockey Mario Gutierrez angled outside and behind his rival, but he was all but cooked. That opened a lane for Cherry Wine. “There was some point there where it seemed they were going to get in a head-to-head battle and all of sudden I saw Mario trying to go around him,” said Nyquist trainer Doug O’Neill. “I didn’t realize Exaggerator was that far ahead of him,” he said.
Gutierrez gave no excuses for his ride aboard Nyquist. “I could feel Exaggerator coming. There was nothing we could do. We swung out late, but they were tough. We tried, but just didn’t get there,” he said.
Nyquist had beaten Exaggerator twice in California and twice in Kentucky, before the Maryland mud proved to be the answer for the son of Curlin. His sire did some of his best work on an off track, winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic on a sloppy Monmouth surface in 2007.
It was the third career Preakness victory for jockey Kent Desormeaux, following wins by Real Quiet (1998) and Big Brown (2008). His brother Keith became the 45th trainer to win the Preakness in his first attempt.
Desormeaux’s ride was one that showed why he is in the Hall of Fame. The Cajun jockey has found his share of trouble on and off the track, but Saturday his experience and faith in his colt shined through. He sat back early while Uncle Lino was setting the fastest first quarter time in Preakness history (22.38) with Nyquist just off of his right flank.
Desormeaux maneuvered Exaggerator to the rail early and had plenty of horse left when he hit the top of the stretch. “I made a 90-degree turn to get to the fence. Tried to put him into the two path, not being right on top of the fence and had an absolute dream ride,” the jockey said.
Keith gave him glowing remarks for getting him to the rail early.
“This is why he’s in the Hall of Fame, for making those kind of decisions,” he said.
All week long the trainer talked about his horse’s quick recovery from his second-place Derby effort and that he was ready for all comers on Saturday. “I’ve always said he’s always had a great ability to recover and he showed it today. The Belmont “is three weeks from today, so I’ll be there with bells on,” said Desormeaux.
Nyquist’s Triple Crown hopes were likely dashed early in the race with a record first quarter time and a half mile that was clocked at 46.56. The hastened pace caused him to use up energy early, while he battled with Uncle Lino on the front end.
In other words, speed kills.
O’Neill took the rap for having him go to the front early. “Him going fast early was really my idea, thinking he’s the best horse so take it to him,” said O’Neill. “If we are going to get beat, let’s get beat being aggressive and not being cute and getting in trouble,” he said.
Jockey Corey Lanerie, who finished second aboard Cherry Wine, was ecstatic about his colt’s performance. “It was a good trip. I got to save all the ground,” said Lanerie. “In the middle of the turn about the three-eighths pole the 9 came over a little bit in my path and we rubbed the fence, other than that it was pretty clear.”
Lanerie was as baffled as most onlookers at Gutierrez’s outside move on Nyquist in the stretch, but enjoyed it all the same. “I saw him duck out, I don’t know what happened, but I liked it. I was hoping he’d take him all the way to the parking lot,” said Lanerie.
Cherry Wine’s trainer Dale Romans declared him for the Belmont and lauded Lanerie’s ride. “I told him to ‘give him the Mine That Bird trip, sit way back, past the mile make sure you catch the last one.’ That’s the only part of the instructions he didn’t listen to,” said Romans.
The Test of a Champion is next in Long Island on June 11 for this 3-year-old crop that has provided some great racing moments over the past few months. It would be a great climax to this year’s Triple Crown trail to have the two rivals that won the first two legs to meet in a rubber match at Big Sandy.
Whether a rematch looms remains to be seen, but on this cold, damp day in Baltimore, Exaggerator and the Desormeaux brothers showed the world what perseverance is all about.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association and tweets @EquiSpace.