Being the focus of widespread attention doesn’t sit too comfortably with trainer Keith Desormeaux. It has nothing to do with the veteran horseman being ungrateful and everything to do with not wanting to miss any intangibles his charges communicate.
“My intensity is in watching those horses train, that is where I get all the clues, all the telltale signs about what those horses want in their training,” he said. “I’m not good enough just to take a glance and go on. I have to pay attention.”
The playful dark bay colt Desormeaux is most closely monitoring these days is the one who, ironically, has dragged the Louisiana native into the spotlight. In the nearly three weeks since his Preakness Stakes triumph, Exaggerator has refused to cut his connections a break by showing even the slightest hint that the strain of the five-week journey he is on has taxed him.
As long as that cue holds up, Desormeaux fully expects the fanfare to continue — something he concedes is a most fortunate problem to have.
The hero of the middle leg of the Triple Crown stands as the clear class for Saturday’s 148th edition of the Belmont Stakes as Exaggerator was installed as the 9-5 morning-line favorite out of post No. 11 over a dozen other entrants for the 1½-mile test.
The 13-horse field is the second largest since 1996 surpassed only by the 14-horse field that lined up in 2013.
The constant attention is a little nerve wracking sometimes. But I tell myself it’s something you have to deal with. These weekends aren’t every weekend, it’s a Triple Crown race.
Keith Desormeaux, trainer of Exaggerator
With no Triple Crown on the line and Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist missing the Belmont after spiking a fever days after the Preakness, the burden of star power has fallen on Exaggerator’s well-built shoulders and he, at least, has taken to the grind of classics with aplomb. One day after turning in a 5-furlong work, the son of Curlin was bucking and playing as he went to jog on the Belmont Park training track Wednesday, about wearing out his trainer’s rotator cuff in the process.
“Oh man, to tell you the truth he’s kind of aggravating me. He’s a non-stop handful,” Desormeaux said. “I walked him myself and he’s just wanting to play at all times. He’s feeling good. He ate up last night and was very limber on the track this morning. I know without a doubt I’m not the star of the show, Exaggerator is the star of the show.
“The constant attention is a little nerve wracking sometimes. But I tell myself it’s something you have to deal with. These weekends aren’t every weekend, it’s a Triple Crown race.”
Though post positions are rarely deemed that crucial in a 12-furlong test, the fact that a bakers’ dozen are set to go into the gate Saturday has upped the importance of the starting point.
Prior to the draw, Keith Desormeaux said he would rather not have Exaggerator on the outside and at risk of losing a ton of ground around the first turn. While the No. 11 post may not have been his dream scenario, his Hall of Fame brother, jockey Kent Desormeaux, said he doesn’t foresee any problems from there his mount can’t handle.
“I think it’s a wonderful post position,” Kent Desormeaux said. “I can’t see any horses that will cross over on him. (We should be) able to establish position, preferably, without getting a grain of sand in his face.”
Exactly where Exaggerator ends up entering the backstretch probably hinges on what kind of fractions expected pacesetter Gettysburg is cranking out up front and who, if anyone, decides to push the 30-1 morning-line long shot.
Both Stradivari, the 5-1 second choice out of post No. 5, and stablemate Destin are candidates to be in the stalk-and-pounce position that has been extremely favorable in the marathon race. Stradivari finished a respectable fourth in the Preakness Stakes in what was just his fourth career start and first try against stakes company while Tampa Bay Derby winner Destin is coming off what trainer Todd Pletcher termed a better-than-it-looked sixth-place effort in the Kentucky Derby.
“I think Stradivari and Destin are horses that have natural positional speed and that in a race like this, where you wouldn’t think too many horses will be gunning away from there, they’ll both be in prominent stalking positions,” said Pletcher, a two-time Belmont Stakes winner. “I think Destin ran a sneaky good race in the Derby. He didn’t get away from the gate the way we wanted to. He had to work to get to the top of the stretch in the position that we’d hoped he would have naturally already been in so … he wasn’t beaten badly and he’s trained well since then.
“Stradivari I think you could make the case he was behind schedule a little bit heading into the Preakness and a race like that could move him forward. They’ve both shown that on their days they are capable of running with the best of this crop.”
Beyond Gettysburg and Stradivari, the Belmont field is largely made up of horses who normally come from well off the pace. How a jockey times his move in this test has always been of utmost importance and, with many contenders expected to have to adjust their running style, rider strategy is heightened all the more.
“If the pace is fast yeah, he’ll be far back. If the pace is slow he’ll be closer,” Keith Desormeaux said of Exaggerator. “It’s not a matter of how far back he is, it’s a matter of being comfortable.”
Belmont Stakes field
1 Governor Malibu (12-1)
2 Destin (6-1)
3 Cherry Wine (8-1)
4 Suddenbreakingnews (10-1)
5 Stradivari (5-1)
6 Gettysburg (30-1)
7 Seeking The Soul (30-1)
8 Forever d’Oro (30-1)
9 Trojan Nation (30-1)
10 Lani (20-1)
11 Exaggerator (9-5)
12 Brody’s Cause (20-1)
13 Creator (10-1)
What: The third leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown
When: 6:32 p.m.
Where: Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y.
Purse: $1.5 million
Distance: 1 1/2 miles
Favorite: Exaggerator (9-5)