Exaggerator takes season lead over Nyquist with win in sloppy Haskell

Belmont Stakes hopeful and Preakness Stakes winner, Exaggerator, with exercise rider Jermal Landry up, at Belmont Park, Friday, June 10, 2016, in Elmont, N.Y. Exaggerator will compete in the 148th running of the Belmont Stakes Horse Race on Saturday. (AP Photo/Peter Morgan)
(AP Photo/Peter Morgan)

Kent and Keith Desormeaux have to be hoping for a wet November in southern California.

Two months after Exaggerator beat Nyquist in the slop at the Preakness, he knocked off his arch-rival again on a muddy track in the Haskell Invitational.

In both horses’ first race since the Triple Crown series, Nyquist locked himself into an early speed duel with Bob Baffert’s American Freedom. The Kentucky Derby fell back down the backstretch – something that indicated he wasn’t sharp – but battled back to take a short lead at the top of the stretch.

Kent Desormeaux, though, knew he had the best horse in the field. He had taken Exaggerator back to last around the first turn, but started moving the Preakness winner past horses as they headed into the clubhouse turn.

“I’m sure Keith was screaming at me when I had the horse that far back,” Desormeaux said about his brother, Exaggerator’s trainer. “But he was just galloping effortlessly, and as soon as I asked, he started passing horses.”

With Nyquist fading down the stretch, Exaggerator passed American Freedom before cutting across to the rail as he posted an impressive victory. There was a half-hearted claim of foul by American Freedom’s connections, but the replay showed that Exaggerator was clear of him before he moved across.

With two straight wins over Nyquist, who didn’t look at all impressive, Exaggerator is now the clear front-runner for the 3-year-old championship. However, Sunday’s win didn’t do anything to answer the biggest question hanging over his head – can he put together a huge performance on a dry track?

His biggest win coming into the Triple Crown was a muddy Santa Anita Derby, and after he lost to Nyquist in the Kentucky Derby, he needed another sloppy track to turn the tables in the Preakness. He then finished a badly beaten 11th in a dry Belmont – Nyquist had skipped it due to illness – and then took six weeks off before the Haskell.

“He’s proven that he loves the mud,” said Julie Clark, Keith Desormeaux’s top assistant with Exaggerator. “Now we just need him to prove it on a fast track.”

The rivalry isn’t likely to end Sunday, unless Nyquist isn’t healthy. He’s still never lost a race on a dry track, and two poor performances in the slop isn’t going to knock him off the Breeders’ Cup trail.

However, unlike last year, when American Pharoah’s only major rivals in November were fellow 3-year-olds, there are some older horses who plan to be at Santa Anita this fall.

The biggest name is California Chrome, winner of the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness. He finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic as a 5-year-old, then missed last year’s race due to a bruised foot. However, he came back this year as a 5-year-old to win the Dubai World Cup, and he won the San Diego Handicap earlier this week in preparation for next month’s Pacific Classic.

He can expect to see Dortmund again there after beating him by a half-length in the San Diego. Dortmund, another Bob Baffert horse, finished third in last year’s Kentucky Derby and fourth in the Preakness and is now running as a highly rated handicap horse on the West Coast.

Six-year-old Beholder, the defending champ of the Pacific Classic, was being pointed in that direction again. However, she was upset Saturday by Stellar Wind in the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes, throwing her future into doubt. Like California Chrome, she missed out on last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, and was hoping to get a shot this year. However, at her age, she might end up aiming for a second win in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

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