The attitude trainer Keith Desormeaux kept clinging to the last several months was not so much about overcoming frustration as it was keeping the faith in what was before him.
In the eight times Nyquist had gone to post in what was an unblemished career heading into Saturday’s $1.5 million Preakness Stakes, Desormeaux had saddled runners that finished behind the son of Uncle Mo seven times. Four of those futile runs were racked up by Exaggerator, the handsome son of Curlin whose most recent performance as the bridesmaid came when he hit the wire 1 1/4 lengths behind his nemesis in the Kentucky Derby.
When asked what it would take for Exaggerator to go from repeated victim to dragon slayer, Desormeaux never made any grand declarations of vengeance. He simply maintained that he had an outstanding horse who made an art form out of bouncing back and wanting more. At some point, he figured, the day would come when that alone would be enough.
As he watched his Hall of Fame brother swing his dark bay colt 3-wide around the far turn at Pimlico Race Course, Keith Desormeaux knew that day had arrived before a record crowd of 135,256 who braved the rain. Instead of another year of Triple Crown hype, persistence and potential prevailed as Exaggerator kicked clear under jockey Kent Desormeaux to capture the 141st Preakness Stakes by 3 1/2 lengths over runner-up Cherry Wine, handing Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist his first career loss.
“I always felt we had an exceptional talent in Exaggerator,” said Keith Desormeaux as he soaked in his first win in a Triple Crown race. “The most important thing for this horse is his ability to recover quickly from his efforts. What I’m feeling now is just an awesome confirmation of a lifetime of dedicating myself to finding and getting the best out of a horse.”
Where many were expecting another Triple Crown bid one year after American Phaorah became the first horse in 37 years to sweep the American classics, a different kind of milestone put the kibosh on the fantasy.
Keith and Kent Desormeaux — the latter a Preakness-winning jockey in 1998 and 2008 — became the first brothers to team up to capture the middle leg of the Triple Crown. While their relationship has been more complex than fairy tale at times, their collective aptitude and horsemanship has never been doubted.
It certainly helps to have the right horse.
“I tell you one thing, these boys right here are awesome,” said Matt Bryan of Big Chief Racing, co-owner of Exaggerator. “The one thing I’m probably proudest of is to win this with these two. You know what, we made history today and that’s unbelievable.”
Even the best of champions are not immune to an Achilles heel. Yet, given the way Nyquist had beaten his opponents in every fashion possible during his eight prior starts, the horse that once had an army of critics began to have an air of impenetrability as he marched into the second leg of the Triple Crown.
He proved in the Kentucky Derby that he had the stamina to sit off a fast pace and still finish with fire. And if Exaggerator’s late kick couldn’t catch Nyquist with the benefit of wicked fractions that day, the 1 3/16-mile Preakness seemed to be tailor-made for the reigning juvenile male champion’s early speed.
A little too much speed was perhaps needed in too ample supply Saturday, however. As Kent Desormeaux got his mount out of post No. 5 and tucked into a ground-saving trip in eighth along the rail, 3-to-5 favorite Nyquist had Uncle Lino to his inside matching his every stride on the front end as they cut opening fractions of 22.38 and 46.56.
“You know, they’re not machines and being 8-for-8 we kept thinking this horse was never going to lose,” said Doug O’Neill, trainer of Nyquist. “But they all lose one time or another. They went pretty good early on but I just wanted to see a good, clean trip and trouble-free.
“I think (jockey) Mario (Gutierrez) did a wonderful job. Him going fast early was really my idea thinking, ‘He’s the best horse, take it to them’.”
Both Nyquist and Exaggerator had run on wet tracks, the former winning the Grade I Florida Derby on April 2 over a drying out surface and Exaggerator dusting the field in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby by 6 1/4 lengths over sloppy conditions on April 9.
When Nyquist finally stuck a head in front of Uncle Lino coming off the final turn, Exaggerator’s mud form proved most superior. He ran by Nyquist — who had never been passed — on the outside and then angled back toward the rail for his victory dance to the wire. Nyquist was nosed out by Cherry Wine for runner-up honors.
“I had a dream ride,” said Kent Desormeaux after guiding Exaggerator to his fifth win in 11 career starts. “I was able to let him inch forward and let him gain to the lead slowly and quietly. From the three-eighths to quarter pole, I was actually slowing him down, asking him to wait. And he just blew up and felt like King Kong.
“When I pitched him out, he exploded. And I thought well, since I’m clear, I might as well throw some mud in their face and ... I let him drift over in front of Nyquist and finish the job.”
Final time for the 1 3/16-mile distance was 1:58.31 over a sealed, sloppy track. Uncle Lino was vanned off after crossing the wire in seventh with what appeared to be a minor tendon injury to his left front, according to veterinarian Dr. Keith Latson.
A Triple Crown may be off the table, but another clash between Exaggerator and Nyquist is not. Keith Desormeaux said he is absolutely heading on to the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes in three weeks, and the Nyquist camp may just be game to try their hand at turning the tables.
“It’s a bummer, of course, but our horse, God, he’s such an amazing horse,” O’Neill said. “Hats off to Exaggerator and Team Desormeaux. What a great run. Maybe we’ll try again.”
What: Third leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown
When: Saturday, June 11