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Exaggerator triumphs in Haskell at Monmouth Park

One of the races commence during Opening Day at Monmouth Park in Oceanport on May 12.

Exaggerator, the winner of the Preakness Stakes earlier this year, stamped himself as the midseason leader of his division with a decisive victory over Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist and four other top-notch 3-year-olds in the Grade 1, $1 million betfair.com Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park July 31.

“Today was a great day for New Jersey and an even greater day for New Jersey horse racing,” Dennis Drazin, advisor to Darby Development LLC, operators of Monmouth Park Racetrack, said in a press release. “While the rains may have dampened the racetrack, they sure didn’t dampen the enthusiastic crowd who were treated to a great race and Exaggerator’s victory.”

Owned by Big Chief Racing LLC, Head of Plains Partners LLC and Rocker O Ranch LLC and trained by Keith Desormeaux, Exaggerator rebounded from a disappointing 11th-place finish last out in the Belmont Stakes, and in the process beat Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist again. The Haskell was the first rematch for the colts since Exaggerator defeated Nyquist in the Preakness in May following a runner-up finish to the Reddam Racing LLC’s color-bearer two weeks earlier in the Kentucky Derby.

With his Haskell victory, Exaggerator earned a berth in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita in November, as Monmouth Park’s most important race, which is also the biggest event in New Jersey racing, is a “Win and You’re In” Breeders’ Cup qualifier.

Exaggerator, who relishes the off-going as evidenced by his wins in the Preakness at Pimlico, Santa Anita Derby in California, and Delta Downs Jackpot in Louisiana over a muddy or sloppy track, found the racing strip and rainy conditions at the Jersey Shore very much to his liking.

“He broke right on the money,” jockey Kent Desormeaux said. “They were going at it pretty well up front and I said to myself, ‘Could this be happening.’ Up the entire backstretch, he was just galloping and gaining on them. I had to snatch him up a little bit into the far turn. I didn’t want him to go too soon.

“The two path seemed to be the best part of the track, but that spot was already taken, so I had to go outside and around horses. Once I called on him, he exploded. When we got clear, I just kept him to his task. He’s a really amazing horse with a devastating turn of foot.”

The late-closing dark bay son of Curlin out of the Vindication mare Dawn Raid came from the back of the six-horse pack, as is his custom, to cover the 1⅛ miles in 1:48.70 on a sealed track rated as sloppy. He finished 1½ lengths in front of the Bob Baffert-trained American Freedom, the Grade 3 Iowa Derby winner, with the New Jersey-bred Sunny Ridge, who is Monmouth-based and was bred and owned by Dennis Drazin, another two lengths behind.

Nyquist, the even-money favorite and leader out of the gate, faded in the stretch to finish fourth.

Content to trail early under Hall of Fame rider Kent Desormeaux, the brother of the trainer, Exaggerator moved up on the backside as the front runners set fractions of 22.78, 46.62 and 1:11 and then rallied around the far turn and into the stretch to chase the leader, American Freedom. After getting past American Freedom, he drifted in front of that colt and jockey Rafael Bejarano inside the eighth pole but then drew clear under urging from Desormeaux.

Bejarano claimed foul, but the objection was disallowed by the stewards.

Keith Desormeaux, who was running a horse at Monmouth for the first time in a quarter-century and notched his first Haskell win, disagreed as he watched the race from Del Mar.

“As the race was unfolding, I thought, ‘Perfect.’ It was not as much Exaggerator laying off the pace, but the way the race was setting up in front of him,” he said. “There was a lot of speed, and he was settling right off of them. It was a repeat of his other wins in the mud.”

Baffert, the Haskell record-holding trainer with eight wins, was also at Del Mar and was delighted with American Freedom despite his runner-up status.

“Too bad it rained. It changed the whole race and the complexity of it. We got stuck outside. I just told [Bejarano] to ride his race. They were going pretty fast. But Exaggerator is a really good horse. We got beat by a really good horse. I’m really proud of the fact that American Freedom can run with those big horses, and he’s moving forward. I was hoping for a dry track because I really thought he could win and I was going to be disappointed if he didn’t win. But the way he got beat, it was by a really good horse. He just couldn’t hold him off,” said Baffert, who won the 2015 Haskell with Triple Crown champion American Pharoah.

Nyquist, the reigning 2-year-old champion, was making his first start since the Preakness after skipping the Belmont due to an illness. His trainer, Doug O’Neill, was also proud of the Derby winner and found no fault with the ride he got from Mario Gutierrez.

“His hands were kind of tied from the rail, so we were forced to ride a little harder than we wanted to. I’m still proud of [Nyquist], and we will regroup, see how he comes out of it and go from there,” O’Neill said. “I thought [Gutierrez] rode him perfectly. That’s how he had to ride, with confidence, and he did. No excuses. We will go over the champ later and go from there. He will go back to California in the next day or two.”

Gutierrez said that Nyquist wasn’t able to bring his “A” game to the Haskell.

“The trip was great. [Nyquist] was just a little off today,” he said. “Any other day, he should be able to attack the pace, [Bejarano’s] horse, [American Freedom,] kept going and I didn’t. The race was great, perfect, but we were a little off today.”

Following Exaggerator, American Freedom, Sunny Ridge and Nyquist to the wire were the Steve Asmussen-trained Gun Runner, who was third in the Kentucky Derby, and Awesome Slew, who is based in the Monmouth barn of Eddie Plesa, Jr.

“It might be that he doesn’t like an off track. If you look at his races, the only two he didn’t run his best races was over the slop,” said Florent Geroux, who was aboard Gun Runner. “It took me a little longer to get the position I wanted, but up the backside, everything was perfect. He just didn’t run his race today.”

Exaggerator, who was bred in Kentucky by Joseph Murphy and was purchased for $110,000 as a 2-year-old, boosted his bankroll to $3,571,120 and rewarded his backers with $7.20, $4.00 and $3.00. He has now won six of 12 lifetime starts, with four Grade 1 wins.

Live racing continues at Monmouth Park Aug. 5. Gates open at 11:30 a.m., and first post is at 12:50 p.m. As always, the racetrack is open seven days a week for simulcasting from across the country and around the globe.

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