Why Exaggerator is a vulnerable Belmont Stakes favorite

Exaggerator, the Preakness winner and Kentucky Derby runner-up, is clearly the most accomplished runner in the Belmont Stakes field, and for that reason he will be the heavy favorite. He also will be overbet and vulnerable stretching out to 1 1/2 miles, which makes him a horse I cannot select on top.

Exaggerator has run very well in his last three starts against the best of his generation. It is only when you dissect all three races that it becomes apparent he was set up perfectly each time. In the Belmont, this might not be the case.

In the Santa Anita Derby, Exaggerator blew away the field over a sloppy track he relished and his opposition did not. He also was set up perfectly to close into blazing fractions, which resulted in a pace meltdown.

In the Kentucky Derby, Exaggerator encountered only minor trouble, considering the bulky field and having to rally from far back. He once again caught a track that had plenty of moisture in it, resulting from a brief but strong rain storm an hour before the race. The track was listed as fast, but it was closer to good. Jockey Kent Desormeaux was able to save valuable ground until angling out in the stretch. Exaggerator sustained a strong closing rally, but in the end was second-best to Nyquist.

you felt Exaggerator was set up perfectly in both the Santa Anita Derby and the Kentucky Derby, the race could not have unfolded any better for him in the Preakness. For the third straight race, Exaggerator caught a track with moisture, and this time the conditions were a sealed sloppy surface. You knew the Preakness fractions would be quick and contentious, but you could not have anticipated the vicious speed duel that developed between odds-on favorite Nyquist and Uncle Lino.

Desormeaux was content to take well back of the cutthroat duel, and placed Exaggerator on the rail to ensure a ground-saving trip. With not a straw in Exaggerator’s path, Desormeaux rationed out his closing move to perfection, creeping closer and closer to the ensuing battle up front while continuing to race along the inside.

Having a dead beat on inhaling the front-runners at the top of the stretch, Desormeaux steered Exaggerator off the rail into the five path turning for home. The lead and the victory was all his with three-sixteenths of a mile to go. Nyquist tried gallantly to make another run and Cherry Wine was gobbling up ground along the rail, but neither was going to overtake Exaggerator who won comfortably by 3 1/2 lengths despite drifting in toward the rail in the late stages.

The Belmont Stakes presents a new set of variables that may not result in the same perfect set ups that Exaggerator has been the beneficiary of in his last three starts.

For starters, there is the 1 1/2-mile distance. Just because he has proven to be a closer who has finished strongly at distances as long as 1 1/4 miles does not mean it will translate as well to the additional quarter-mile of the Belmont. If you read the footnotes in the charts as well as the comments to the right of his past performances in his last four starts, you will notice that in each race it states “lugged in” or “drifted in.”

Watching the head-on replay, it becomes apparent that this action could be a result of being a tired horse late in his races or just a habit. Even though he was victorious in two of those four races, the setup and a clear lead in midstretch helped propel him to victory, so being a tired horse did not stand out as much. It did show more clearly when he ran third in the San Felipe and finished second behind Nyquist in the Derby.

Exaggerator also will not get the same quick and contested fractions to close into in the Belmont. Desormeaux, at several points during the race, will have to ask for a burst of acceleration. If not, Exaggerator will have to sustain one run, which could make him vulnerable to a fresher horse in the late stages of the race.

It would be folly to say that Exaggerator will not win the Belmont Stakes based on his resume and the opposition he is facing. Nevertheless, I feel he is the type of horse with a certain clearly defined profile that I look forward to betting against in the Belmont, even though I will include him on most of my tickets, but not nearly as much on top. My wagering strategies also will include some tickets going for the big score if Exaggerator does not run first or second and with the remote chance he does not hit the board.

Tom Franklin is a senior contributor at US Racing.
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