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Exaggerator feels at home on Belmont surface

Jockey Kent Desormeaux rides Exaggerator onto the track

Jockey Kent Desormeaux rides Exaggerator onto the track before a training session before the 148th running of the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park on June 6, 2016 in Elmont. Credit: Getty Images / Al Bello

On a warm, sunny morning at Belmont Park, the theme for thoroughbred and rider centered on recovery. For Belmont Stakes favorite Exaggerator, it was about his remarkable ability to maintain his energy level throughout the grueling Triple Crown. For Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux, it was about taking a stand in his battle against alcoholism.

He failed Breathalyzer tests at Woodbine, in 2010, and at Belmont, in 2012, according to track stewards, and was fined $2,500 “for riding under the influence of alcohol” last July 29 at Del Mar. Desormeaux can be the most creative and expansive interview subject in racing. But when asked Tuesday about checking into an alcohol rehabilitation program last week at a clinic in Sundance, Utah, he was brief.

“I’ll say this about that,” Desormeaux said. “I think that my brother Keith, my wife [Rosie] and my family have supported me through all the years, and it was my turn to say thank you.”

Keith Desormeaux, Exaggerator’s trainer, put his arm around his younger brother’s neck and smiled. “Clean livin’, boy,” Keith said in his Cajun accent. “Clean livin’.”

Kent Desormeaux spoke about 90 minutes after he breezed the Preakness winner 5 furlongs in 1:00 4/5, according to a Daily Racing Form clocker. It was Exaggerator’s first timed workout since a week before the Kentucky Derby.

The rider said the rangy bay colt felt the same as he did during his 5-furlong move April 30 at Churchill Downs, where he ran second in the Derby behind Nyquist. “Good energy, lots of fluidity,” he said. “He was full of life and full of speed. His recovery came within 20 feet after pulling up. He took a deep breath and acted like he’d just been walking around the barn.”

On Monday afternoon, that’s what he did as Keith Desormeaux accompanied him around Barn 29. The wired Exaggerator was in his usual feisty mood, pulling his trainer along and keeping him on his toes. Sometimes the colt would stop, then take a few stutter-steps as if to amuse himself. Shortly before being returned to his stall for dinner, he reared up and pulled away hard from Desormeaux, who yanked his shank and yelled, “Hey! Hey!” to calm him.

“That’s all I’d need is for him to tear off a shoe,” Desormeaux told Newsday. “He just got new ones today.”

The wired Exaggerator still had plenty of juice Tuesday and wasn’t tired after exercising.

“The time is of secondary importance,’’ the trainer said. “You want to see him feeling good afterward. You don’t want to see him sweating and bug-eyed after a work, because that would mean he didn’t like the surface. When I got back to the barn, his sweat already had dried up.

“He’s got great ability to recover. He’s very intelligent, very athletic and very sound.’’

Kent Desormeaux is based in Southern California but was a Belmont Park regular for eight years. The surface of its main track often is deeper than anywhere else, and at 1½ miles in circumference it’s the biggest racecourse in North America. This will be his 10th mount in the 1½-mile Belmont, which he won in 2009 on Summer Bird.

“It was an eye opener,” he said of returning to Elmont. “It’s different. It’s Big Sandy, and Exaggerator seemed to enjoy the going. I’m very excited for him, and I’m more thrilled that I’m back here with my brother Keith.”

Both brothers said they were unconcerned about the Belmont’s pace scenario, in which long shot Gettysburg is expected to lead a field without much early speed. “Exaggerator is going to be where I’m comfortable,” Kent said.

A field of 13 is expected to be entered Wednesday at Rockefeller Center, with Exaggerator sure to be a short price, 8-5 or lower. Only he and Lani (fifth in the Preakness, ninth in the Derby) will run in all three classics.

“It’s very rare in this day and age for a horse to handle the Triple Crown so well,” Keith Desormeaux said. “Exaggerator is very intelligent, very athletic, very sound and has the pedigree to get the distance. With all of his attributes, it doesn’t look like this third race will be a problem.”

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