Curlin stood on Monmouth Park’s backstretch on a rainy autumn morning, a mount worthy of a Norse god. The massive chestnut colt’s talent matched his killer looks. He was the equine equivalent of the greatest running back of all time, Jim Brown, with breakaway speed, bullish determination and a marathoner’s stamina.
If not for a bad trip, Curlin might have won the 2007 Kentucky Derby in his third start. He took the Preakness, narrowly lost the Belmont, and was just getting started. Among the two-time Horse of the Year’s triumphs were a Breeders’ Cup Classic, a Dubai World Cup, two Jockey Club Gold Cups and the North American earnings record of $10.5 million.
Chances were slim that he could reproduce himself. Curlin had what was considered a slow start at stud, even though 2013 Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice came from his first crop. Curlin’s fee in 2009 was a relatively cheap $30,000, $70,000 less than now. His most gifted children made daddy proud last year, when Keen Ice knocked off Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the Travers, Stellar Wind earned the 3-year-old filly championship and Curalina won a Grade I stakes.
This spring, Curlin’s son Exaggerator has become a star, sandwiching victories in the Santa Anita Derby and Preakness around a strong second in the Derby. He’ll be a heavy favorite in Saturday’s 1½-mile Belmont, where he’ll try to avenge daddy’s loss to the filly Rags to Riches in “The Test of the Champion.”
The rangy bay colt’s consistency is remarkable in an era when even the great ones tend to zig-zag. His versatility is just as impressive, and his extended excellence is a family trait. Exaggerator is 5-for-11 with three seconds and earnings of $2.97 million. His worst finish was fourth, three lengths behind future Derby winner Nyquist after a rough trip in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
“He broke his maiden at five-eighths, he won the Saratoga Special at 6½ furlongs, and he won the Preakness at a mile and three-sixteenths,” trainer Keith Desormeaux said. “If you say he’s not versatile, you’re not reading the Form.”
Exaggerator always shows up full of energy, a tribute to Desormeaux, who has made no rookie mistakes in his Triple Crown debut.
Dale Romans trains Preakness runner-up Cherry Wine, who will challenge Exaggerator Saturday. “He’s a very talented horse, and Keith has done a great job with him,’’ Romans said. “I thought he went into the Preakness looking as good as a horse could look.”
Exaggerator doesn’t resemble Curlin, looking more like a rangy wide receiver than a powerful back. “He’s built different, more refined,” Desormeaux said. “He’s been fast from the get-go, and now he’s got the experience. He’s had 11 starts, and he’s finally figured out what we want him to do. Horses have very volatile minds, and it’s a trainer’s job to get them to relax.”
Exaggerator stormed from 13 and 11 lengths behind to runaways on sloppy tracks in the Santa Anita Derby and Preakness, so many consider him a wet-track specialist without early speed. Not true. Any horse who can be a length off the lead after a 44 2/5-second half-mile going 7 furlongs on a fast track is no plodding mudder.
“He’s as good on a fast track as he is in the mud,’’ Desormeaux said. “It just so happens that the pace in those two races was extremely fast. And when you have the only horse back there who’s waiting to explode . . . ’’
While Keith’s younger brother Kent bided his time on Exaggerator, Nyquist and Uncle Lino dueled through a suicidal first quarter-mile in 22.38 seconds, a Preakness record. There’s no way that will happen Saturday. There’s not much speed in the Belmont, even with Monday’s addition of front-runner Gettysburg, which is fine with trainer Desormeaux.
“He can be on the lead if we want him to be or come from 20 lengths back,’’ Keith Desormeaux said. “As long as he’s comfortable, it doesn’t matter, because he’s got a big late kick.”
Donnie Von Hemel trains closer Suddenbreakingnews, who skipped the Preakness after running fifth in the Derby.
“I think with his pedigree, Exaggerator is the horse to beat and a deserving favorite,’’ he said. “And to speak quite honestly, he’s the most likely winner in the race.’’
Notes & quotes: As of Monday, the Belmont field was 13, the biggest since the maximum of 14 ran in 2013. Besides Exaggerator, Cherry Wine and Suddenbreakingnews, Brody’s Cause, Creator, Destin, Forever d’Oro, Governor Malibu, Lani, Seeking the Soul, Stradivari, Trojan Nation and Wild About Deb are expected to be entered Wednesday at the noon draw at Rockefeller Center.