Horses

Belmont Stakes favorite Exaggerator finally the star of the show

Belmont Stakes hopeful and Preakness Stakes winner, Exaggerator, with exercise rider Jermal Landry up, is led out to the main track by assistant trainer Julie Clark 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.
Belmont Stakes hopeful and Preakness Stakes winner, Exaggerator, with exercise rider Jermal Landry up, is led out to the main track by assistant trainer Julie Clark 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

It was barely three months ago that trainer Keith Desormeaux openly wondered if Exaggerator had hit a wall, saying in the aftermath of the colt’s third-place run in the Grade II San Felipe Stakes that perhaps the son of Curlin “might be maxing out at a mile.”

It was just five weeks ago that many wondered if the dark bay colt would ever get the best of Nyquist, as his runner-up finish behind the juvenile male champion in the Kentucky Derby marked his fourth career loss to his then-unbeaten nemesis.

It is amazing what a well-executed statement can do to alter previous perceptions. After conquering Nyquist in the Preakness Stakes, finishing that test 3½ lengths in front and bouncing out like a horse begging for more, Exaggerator now has a heavy weight of favoritism on him for Saturday’s 148th running of the Belmont Stakes.

He is now looked upon as one whose pedigree and aptitude can stand up to the 1½-mile demand of the final leg of the Triple Crown. Should he prevail on what is as blockbluster of a card as one will find outside of the Breeders’ Cup, the one-time bridesmaid will probably move to the divisional forefront.

“Champions are made in the fall, but at this point if you had to vote and if he won the Belmont, that’s not even a question (that Exaggerator would be the top 3-year-old),” Desormeaux said.

I guess it would be considered a dream if we didn’t think we could accomplish it. But it’s been realistic to me.

Keith Desormeaux, trainer of Preakness winner and Belmont favorite Exaggerator

While this year’s Belmont Stakes does not have the sexy anticipation of a Triple Crown — something racing fans have been spoiled with the last two years in California Chrome (2014) and conquering hero American Pharoah (2015) — 9-5 morning-line favorite Exaggerator brings his own intriguing narrative as he readies to face 12 contenders.

The colt’s steady ascent has been validating for Desormeaux, whose horsemanship has toiled under the radar for years and only recently gained big-stage acclaim. Prior to breaking through with Exaggerator and 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Texas Red — his first Grade I winner — the Louisiana native was best known as the older brother of Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux, who has made his own headlines this week with his announcement that he is addressing his longtime battle with alcohol.

Comfortable as he may be in the shadows, Keith Desormeaux never abandoned faith that both he and his equine pupil would end up at this lofty level. His sharp eye picked Exaggerator out of the back walking ring at the 2014 Keeneland September Yearling Sale and his patience allowed his charge to mature into a versatile horse. He won the Grade III Delta Jackpot in front-running fashion last November but was most effective closing well off the pace over wet tracks in both his Grade I Santa Anita Derby victory and his Preakness triumph.

“I guess it would be considered a dream if we didn’t think we could accomplish it. But it’s been realistic to me,” Keith Desormeaux said of training a classic winner. “I’ve obviously been here with Kent, I have co-workers and good friends who competed at this level. I never considered it a dream to get here, it’s been a goal. But I was very confident this time would come.”

Instead of fielding questions about how he plans to get Exaggerator over the hump, Keith Desormeaux is now being lauded for bringing him into the 12-furlong Belmont with seemingly few holes.

The lack of pace in the field was addressed when WinStar Farm announced it was transferring maiden-winner Gettysburg from Todd Pletcher to Steve Asmussen and entering him in the race to help the cause of Exaggerator, who the farm owns the stud rights to, and its Grade I winner Creator.

With the Belmont often yielding tepid fractions and much of the field made up of horses that are normally deep closers, a few risk being taken out of their game if asked to sit just off the pace. Exaggerator by contrast has that tactical ability if needed and, with an increasing chance of showers in Saturday’s forecast, he could again get the wet surface he relishes.

“I think it is a wide-open field but I think Exaggerator is a deserving favorite,” said Pletcher, who will saddle Stradivari and Tampa Bay Derby winner Destin in the Belmont. “He’s run consistently well. He ran great in the Derby, great in the Preakness and he’s shown up every time.”

Added trainer Donnie Von Hemel, who will send out Kentucky Derby fifth-place finisher Suddenbreakingnews, “We skipped the Preakness and some didn’t and hopefully that will be an advantage to us. But I still think Exaggerator will be tough to beat.”

The prospect of an off track would also benefit Preakness Stakes runner-up Cherry Wine, who has looked every bit like a blossoming horse since his Baltimore outing. The son of Paddy O’Prado broke his maiden by 9¼ lengths over a sloppy Churchill Downs surface last November but also won by daylight over a fast Gulfstream Park surface in his season debut.

It’s almost refreshing not to have a Triple Crown on the line, so people can realize how special it really was.

Dale Romans, trainer of Cherry Wine

Though the Belmont Stakes is the headline event on a card that features nine graded stakes, including six Grade I contests, it may not be the best race Saturday. The Grade I Acorn Stakes features Kentucky Oaks winner Cathryn Sophia facing the likes of graded stakes winners Go Maggie Go and Carina Mia while the Grade I Ogden Phipps has reigning Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Stopchargingmaria knocking heads with fellow Grade I winners Curalina, Forever Unbridled, Cavorting and Sheer Drama.

“There’s a lot going on and I hope the racing fans appreciate it,” said trainer Dale Romans, who will saddle both Cherry Wine and Grade I winner Brody’s Cause. “It’s almost refreshing not to have a Triple Crown on the line, so people can realize how special it really was. The average racing fan today, the age group, they got spoiled in the ’70s. The new group coming up needs to realize how special what they witnessed (last year) was.”

Alicia Wincze Hughes: 859-231-1676, @horseracinghl

Saturday

Belmont Stakes

What: The third leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown

When: 6:32 p.m.

Where: Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y.

TV: NBC

Purse: $1.5 million

Distance: 1  1/2 miles

For: 3-year-olds

Favorite: Exaggerator (9-5)

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