OCEANPORT, N.J. — It was Exaggerator’s kind of weather, rainy, and his kind of track, wet. Still, there were serious questions about the Preakness winner. His July 23 workout at Saratoga was subpar, and he was coming off that 11th-place flop in the Belmont Stakes.
But as he surged down the stretch Sunday at overcast Monmouth Park, there was no doubt who ruled the $1.015-million Haskell Invitational. Jock ey Kent Desormeaux urged Exaggerator past his archrival, Kentucky Derby winner Ny quist, and runner-up American Freedom for a 1 1⁄2-length victory before a crowd of 30,587.
It was a rerun of what happened May 21 in the Pimlico muck, when Nyquist dueled with Uncle Lino and faded to third. This time, American Freedom, trained by eight-time Haskell winner Bob Baffert, pressured last year’s 2-year-old champ ion, never farther than a half-length apart through hot fractions of 22.78 seconds for a quarter-mile, 46.62 for a half and 1:11 for 6 furlongs. Desormeaux moved from last of six early to fourth 3 furlongs from the finish.
“They were going head and head pretty aggressively in front of me,” Desormeaux said. “It reminded me of the Preakness. At the three-eighths pole, I asked him to wait a little more. He showed his exemplary turn of foot at the quarter pole and real ly exploded.”
Exaggerator’s trainer, Kent’s older brother, Keith Desormeaux, was back in California. He had left his horse of a lifetime with assistant trainer Julie Clark, who also happens to be his girlfriend. Ten minutes after the race, Newsday asked her for Keith’s reaction.
“I haven’t talked to him yet. I suppose I should,” Clark said while reaching for her cellphone.
Kent Desormeaux joked that Keith “was probably panicking on the beach at Del Mar, wearing his sandals in the sand.” Not so.
“As the race was unfolding, I thought, ‘Perfect,’ ” Keith Desormeaux told TVG. “It was the way it was setting up in front of him. There was a lot of speed, and it was a repeat of his other [three] wins in the mud.”
It was Exaggerator’s second upset in a row of Nyquist, the even-money favorite who faded to fourth under Mario Gutierrez. He’s lost his last two starts after starting 8-for-8, including four wins over Exaggerator.
“[American Freedom] kept going, and Nyquist didn’t, and that makes me think he wasn’t 100 percent today,’’ Gutierrez said. “He was just a little off. Any other day, he would have been able to keep up with that kind of pace.”
Exaggerator paid $7.20 for his sixth win in 13 starts after running 1 1⁄8 miles in the slop in 1:48.70.
Sunny Ridge, a 31-1 shot, was third, a neck ahead of Nyquist, followed by Gun Runner and Awesome Slew.
Trainer Doug O’Neill said Nyquist will go back to California and regroup. Exaggerator might run Aug. 27 in the “Midsummer Derby.”
“I will absolutely consider the Travers,” Keith Desormeaux said. “We went to the Haskell because he was struggling with the track at Saratoga. Hopefully, that changes.’’