Exaggerator puts one on the board against Nyquist

BALTIMORE -- On a cold, rainy, dreary afternoon, the wattage from the smiles of those connected to Exaggerator could have lit up the town, from the Inner Harbor to Camden Yards to Fells Point and all the way to Pimlico Race Course.

Exaggerator had given futile chase to Nyquist at Santa Anita, Keeneland and just two weeks ago when he finished second in the Kentucky Derby, but on Saturday, in his fifth try, he finally, memorably prevailed in the 141st Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the Triple Crown.

In Charm City, the fifth time was the charm.

"This is the only time when we're part of the mainstream media," said Keith Desormeaux, Exaggerator's trainer. "It's an American classic for a reason. To finally get to win one, it's kind of hard to describe. What I'm feeling now is awesome confirmation of a lifetime of dedicating myself to finding and getting the best out of a horse."

Desormeaux won the race in concert with his brother, jockey Kent Desormeaux, who gave Exaggerator a flawless ride. He won it with the backing of Matt Bryan, who races as Big Chief Racing and has given Keith Desormeaux the financial wherewithal to pick out more expensive yearlings. Desormeaux's girlfriend, Julie Clark, works tirelessly as his assistant trainer. This was a victory for perseverance.

Exaggerator persevered most of all. This was his 11th lifetime start and his fifth start of the year. He has raced in California, New York, Louisiana, Kentucky and now Maryland and has fired almost every time, with five wins and nine finishes in the money. Until Saturday, he had never defeated Nyquist. By winning the Preakness, Exaggerator sent Nyquist to his first defeat and allowed American Pharoah -- who swept the Triple Crown last year -- to retain his title as the only horse since 1978 to win the Triple Crown.

Exaggerator has a powerful late kick, but he moved to the leaders on his own, then turned on the jets down the lane and won by 3-1/2 lengths. Cherry Wine, 10th early in the 11-horse field, closed stoutly to nose Nyquist out for second. Stradivari was another half-length back in fourth. Then came Lani, Laoban, Uncle Lino, Fellowship, Awesome Speed, Collected and Abiding Star.

Uncle Lino was taken by van from the track with inflammation in his left front tendon, but he was "bearing weight on all four limbs," according to Dr. Keith Latson, the on-call veterinarian for the American Association of Equine Practitioners.

Exaggerator, the second choice at 5-2 to Nyquist's 3-5, paid $7.20 for a $2 win ticket. He completed 1-3/16 miles on sloppy, sealed track in 1:58.31.

"The most important thing is his ability to recover from his efforts, and he recovered from the Derby quickly," said Keith Desormeaux, who said Kent's first comment to him when he got to the winner's circle was, "Keith, he's cooled out already."

"Most horses that run that effort, they're sweating, bug-eyed," Keith Desormeaux said. "He was totally calm."

The race and the weather were in Exaggerator's favor. It rained much of the day, which produced a surface similar to what Exaggerator thrived over when winning the Santa Anita Derby on April 9. Then the race unfolded at a scalding pace that left Nyquist vulnerable.

Nyquist was sent hard from the gate to outrun Uncle Lino to his inside and Awesome Speed to his outside, but he and Uncle Lino sped the opening quarter in 22.38 seconds -- the fastest opening quarter-mile in the race's history -- and Nyquist was in front after a half in 46.56 seconds and six furlongs in 1:11.97. He was slowing down, and the others were gaining, most notably Exaggerator, who had saved ground from the start and was ready to pounce.

"I had an absolute dream ride," Kent Desormeaux said. "I was able to inch forward and gain on the leaders slowly and quietly. From the 3/8ths to the quarter, I was slowing him down, waiting. He felt like King Kong. When I pitched him out, he exploded."

Up in the stands, Keith Desormeaux admitted that he was initially worried when Kent chose an early path along the rail that other riders ignored, but Kent -- whose first taste of the success that brought him to the Hall of Fame began in Maryland -- said his familiarity with the track was beneficial.

"Welcome to my house!" he bellowed at the postrace press conference.

"That's why he's in the Hall of Fame -- those kinds of decisions," said Keith Desormeaux, who also started his career in Maryland as an exercise rider before advancing to training.

Nyquist ran well in defeat, but the early pace and relentless charge from Exaggerator proved to be hurdles too high to overcome.

"He still ran a great race," said his trainer, Doug O'Neill, who won his only Preakness in 2012 with his Derby winner of that year, I'll Have Another.

Kent Desormeaux was winning the Preakness for the third time, but this was Keith's first in a classic race. Their relationship is a complicated one, and they failed to toe the sentimentality line after the race.

"Brotherly love -- is that different from any other kind of love?" Keith Desormeaux said. "When you have that love, you don't need to show it outwardly."

"I looked at him, he looked at me, and I got a fist pump. That was it," Kent Desormeaux said.

Exaggerator is a son of Curlin, who won the Preakness in 2007 after finishing third in the Derby. Exaggerator earned $900,000 from the gross purse of $1.5 million to bring his career total to just shy of $3 million.

Matt Bryan and Ron Ortowski -- who races as Rocker O Ranch -- were the original partners in Exaggerator. Head of Plains Partners, run by Sol Kumin, bought in before the Santa Anita Derby. After the Santa Anita Derby, WinStar Farm acquired the breeding rights to Exaggerator. Like the Desormeaux brothers, their belief in Exaggerator was rewarded Saturday.

Keith Desormeaux immediately committed to the third leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes, on June 11 in New York. O'Neill said "maybe we'll try again" with Nyquist in the Belmont but was not as emphatic as Desormeaux.

The score is still 4-1 in favor of Nyquist, but in the Triple Crown, they're all tied up. That's no exaggeration.