ARCADIA, Calif. -- Exaggerator was very good at 2 but showed in his last start that he has the potential to be even better at 3. Trainer Keith Desormeaux is hoping Exaggerator continues to move forward when he moves back around two turns Saturday in the Grade 2, $400,000 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, which is coming up as the deepest Kentucky Derby prep run this year.
Of the seven runners in the San Felipe, five -- Danzing Candy, Exaggerator, Mor Spirit, Smokey Image, and Uncle Lino -- are current members of the Derby Watch top 20. Exaggerator comes off a strong, second-place finish behind champion Nyquist in the seven-furlong San Vicente, in which Exaggerator earned a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 98.
"Other than winning the race, there was nothing disappointing about that race," Desormeaux said. "He was very relaxed the early part of the race, cooled out quickly afterwards, and came back to train well. Trainers are good at dreaming up excuses, but I can't find any."
Exaggerator and Desormeaux will be glad to get out of the shadow of Nyquist, who is headed to the Florida Derby. Exaggerator has lost all three of his starts against Nyquist. In his races minus Nyquist, Exaggerator is 3 for 4. The Desormeaux-trained Swipe has lost all four of his races against Nyquist.
This time, Exaggerator's main rival figures to be Mor Spirit, who won last month's Derby prep here, the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, running down San Felipe entrants Uncle Lino and I Will Score. Bob Baffert, the trainer of Mor Spirit, said all systems are go following two workouts since one that went awry Feb. 23.
"We got caught up after that busted play," Baffert said.
Baffert is also running the recent maiden winner Cupid, who was rerouted to this race when his initial target, the Sunland Derby, was canceled.
The San Felipe, at 1-1/16 miles, is the final major prep for the Santa Anita Derby on April 9. It offers 85 qualifying points overall, including 50 to the winner, on the system used by Churchill Downs to determine the field for the May 7 Kentucky Derby.
Exaggerator, by Curlin
Last 3 Beyers: 98-92-84
He has won once in three tries at 1 1/16 miles. As a son of Curlin, he has a right to improve as he gets older.
"Most Curlins do get better with age and distance," Desormeaux said. "He's very sound and put together correctly. All the parameters are there."
Mor Spirit, by Eskendereya
Last 3 Beyers: 93-88-85
He overcame a fairly pedestrian pace to run down Uncle Lino and I Will Score while giving five pounds (124-119) to those rivals in the Lewis, which also was at 1 1/16 miles. He has to give four pounds (124-120) to everyone in this race except for Exaggerator, who carries 122.
Baffert said Mor Spirit will have earplugs when saddling and for the post parade, but they are to be removed when he gets to the starting gate.
"He's feisty," Baffert said. "He's a good-feeling horse."
Danzing Candy, by Twirling Candy
Last 3 Beyers: 92-89-72
He is making his stakes debut following a runaway victory against allowance company.
He has excellent speed, but his first jump out of the gate has been an adventure. He can't afford a misstep against this class of horses.
Smokey Image, by Southern Image
Last 3 Beyers: 83-82-82
Unbeaten in six starts, he gets a severe class test after winning three straight stakes restricted to California-breds.
In his only start around two turns, he rolled to an easy victory last time out in the California Cup Derby, and he has come back to work strongly since.
"All of his works have been great," said trainer Carla Gaines. "He mistakenly ended up in company in a team, but that's because he made his own company. He sees a horse in front and goes after him."
Uncle Lino, by Uncle Mo
Last 3 Beyers: 90-90-86
He was second-best last time out behind Mor Spirit but wound up in a tough spot, chasing I Will Score and then forced to try to fend off Mor Spirit when trying two turns for the first time.