Normally when racehorse trainers see rain in the forecast, they say three Hail Marys and pray the weather forecasters are wrong, especially in California where rain is as rare as a hockey player with a full set of teeth. But when the local weatherman called for some heavy afternoon showers on Santa Anita Derby (GI) Day, it’s easy to imagine trainer Keith Desormeaux doing his happy dance.
Last year, Big Chief Racing (Matt Bryan), Head of Plains Partners, Rocker O Ranch and Keith Desormeaux’s Exaggerator racked up an impressive juvenile season that included wins in the Saratoga Special (GII) and Delta Jackpot Stakes (GIII). But perhaps what stood out most heading into his final Kentucky Derby prep after a rainy forecast was that he’d won the Delta Jackpot over a muddy surface and also finished a strong second over a wet surface in the Breeders’ Futurity (GI) at Keeneland last year.
So like a duck to water and finally again showing the pure talent he displayed as a 2-year-old, Exaggerator easily skipped across Santa Anita’s sealed but sloppy main track to win the Golden State’s marquee event for sophomores by 6 1/4 lengths and head to Kentucky as a legitimate threat to dethrone champion Nyquist, who, so far, he’s failed to defeat in three previous meetings.
“We haven’t been able to beat him, what five [actually three] times?” an elated trainer said after the race. “I don’t know if we can or not.”
After the break, expected frontrunner Danzing Candy sped to the lead and set all the early pace while alone on the front through splits of :22.15, :45.24 and 1:10.12 for three-quarters of a mile. Longshot Uncle Lino chased the early pace with fellow outsider Smokey Image pushing hard in third just to his outside. Favored Mor Spirit sat just behind the top three and along the rail in the early going while saving as much ground as possible until it was time to make his move.
Exaggerator was in front of just one rival for nearly three-quarters of a mile, but as soon as Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux asked him for his best run while the leaders started their run around the bend, he was picking off rivals easily with each stride.
As Danzing Candy made his way around the far bend, Uncle Lino was at full throttle and gaining ground, while Smokey Image dropped back quickly and out of contention. Uncle Lino reached even terms with Danzing Candy by the time the pair reached the quarter pole, but Exaggerator had already passed a mildly rallying Mor Spirit while racing five-wide and, soon after, reached even terms with his last two rivals as they all straightened out for the drive in a line across the track.
The race was over from there, however, as Exaggerator increased his advantage with every stride, leaving Mor Spirit to earn second-place honors after a mild rally behind him, and Uncle Lino to hold on for third, another 2 1/4 length behind the runner-up.
After passing the eighth pole in 1:36.30, Exaggerator stopped the Teletimer in 1:49.66 for the nine furlongs.
At the public’s third choice at nearly odds of 7-2, Exaggerator paid $8.80, $3.60 and $2.80. Favored Mor Spirit was good for $2.80 and $2.40 at 7-5, while 26-1 chance Uncle Lino paid $5. The exacta was good for $10 and the trifecta $68.30.
Danzing Candy, Diplodocus, Denman’s Call, Smokey Image and Iron Rob completed the order of finish after Dressed in Hermes was withdrawn a day earlier.
“He’s so mature and he walked to the gate like an old pony,” Desormeaux said of his winning mount. “He left there quiet and comfortable and I think that’s the difference, when a horse lets you drive and they’re not man-handling themselves. He’s that caliber of horse and it’s extra special to be with Keith, and we don’t even talk too much, it’s all quite understood. All he said in the paddock was, ‘Kent, I’m telling you that I’ve never seen this horse so confident.’ When I galloped off once I was on the track, he took to the track like a duck to water. He never missed a beat and he showed it winning today.”
A year ago, the brothers Desormeaux found themselves in a similar spot with champion Texas Red before the colt was injured and taken off the Derby trail. This year they’re both hoping for better luck for the son of Curlin, as well as for themselves.
“Today, we had a great pace scenario and he took full advantage,” the trainer said. “For me, this is like a dream. I mean, the Derby is what everybody in this business dreams of.”
Exaggerator went into the Santa Anita Derby with more than double the earnings of his next-closest rival with over a million dollars in the bank, thanks to his win in the $1 million Delta Jackpot, and with the $600,000 he picked up Saturday, boosted his total to $1,671,120. His career line stands at 9-4-2-1. He also was second to Nyquist in this year’s San Vicente Stakes (GII) and third in the San Felipe Stakes (GII) in his most recent start.
Exaggerator earned 100 points for his first career Grade 1 score and as of now sits third on the list of points holders with a total of 126.