Preakness winner Exaggerator and Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist are heading to Belmont Park to renew their rivalry in the 148th running of the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes on Saturday, June 11.
Exaggerator, who had been 0-for-4 against Nyquist heading into Preakness at Pimlico Race Course on Saturday, May 21, got the best of his rival with a late-charging, rail-skimming run through the mud that carried him to a 3½-length victory over Cherry Wine, with Nyquist coming in third and suffering his first career defeat in nine starts.
Both colts emerged from the race in good order, according to their connections, and will ship north on different timetables to prepare for the 1½-mile Belmont, the centerpiece of the three-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival from June 9-11.
Nyquist is scheduled to arrive at Belmont Park on Monday, May 23, with Exaggerator set to leave Baltimore in one week. Early contenders expected to join the two in the Belmont are Preakness runner-up Cherry Wine, fifth-place finisher Lani, the Todd Pletcher-trained Destin, Suddenbreakingnews and Cherry Wine’s stablemate, Blue Grass winner Brody’s Cause.
Exaggerator, whose margins of defeat to Nyquist had steadily narrowed prior to Saturday’s breakthrough victory, enjoyed treats of carrots and apples Sunday morning as trainer Keith Desormeaux tried to take in the significance of his first Classic win and what awaits the colt in New York.
“I’m still processing it all,” he said. “The dream is to be able to compete at this level. To have a horse that is consistent, to have the ability to compete at this level. Winning the thing – we do our best, honestly. We prepare and hope and make sure we’ve done all we can to get the horse to the race in the best shape we can. The actual feeling of winning is actually, honestly, still sinking in.”
Desormeaux, whose brother, Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux, will be aboard as he goes for his second win in the Belmont, said he was looking forward to a rematch with Nyquist, last year’s 2-year-old champion.
“It’s fun! This is fun,” Desormeaux said. “There was no pressure on me yesterday, the pressure was on Nyquist to keep the record perfect. I totally enjoyed the day. Now that we’ve accomplished this, the pressure is even less. Honestly, the hard part in getting the horses to this level is the year of preparation in getting here. Keeping them happy. Keeping them refreshed. Massages. Sponge baths. Good grooms and great meals. It gets real simple after you do this. The real work is done.”
The trainer said he thought Exaggerator might have an edge in the Belmont, the longest of the three Triple Crown races, based on pedigree.
“My horse is a little more skewed toward distance [than Nyquist] as far as pedigree is concerned,” Desormeaux said. “He’s Curlin, Curlin could run all day. He got beat a nose in the Belmont. Curlin is known in the industry as a classic producing horse. He’s out of a Vindication mare, who’s by Seattle Slew. It’s distance on top of distance. He should relish it.
“People think it’s about fitness,” Desormeaux added. “At this point, it can’t be. It’s about pedigree. I can’t do much more in deepening his fitness. It’s there. My job in the next three weeks is freshening him and getting him strong and happy. That 1½-mile deal is more about pedigree than what I’m going to do in the morning. Another very important thing I think, is that Belmont is called Big Sandy for a reason. I think there’s some Triple Crown defeats because of horses going in there too late. You have to get in there and train there and get those horses acclimated to the different surface. We’ll have plenty of time to do that. Pedigree wins the Belmont.”
Nyquist’s trainer, Doug O’Neill, said the Derby winner was in good shape Sunday morning and would van to New York Monday morning along with several other horses. “He looked great. He looked fantastic. Ate up well; legs ice-cold; jogging good. So I’m very happy,” he said. “And the plan at this point is to van to New York tomorrow. We’re heading to Belmont, and as long as he continues to show good energy, does well, we’ll try this again in three weeks.”
The decision to aim at the third jewel of the Triple Crown wasn’t difficult, O’Neill said. The Belmont will be run June 11 at Belmont Park. “That was kind of the plan, to try to point to the Triple Crown, all three races, and ideally win all three,” O’Neill said. “But I thought he ran a real gutsy race yesterday, and just wanted to make sure he looked good this morning before committing to going to the Belmont. I’ll talk to (owners) Paul and Zillah (Reddam) later today. We had dinner last night, and that was the plan. As long as he looked good, we would go on.”
The rematch between the winners of the first two legs of the Triple Crown would be the first since 2013, when Derby winner Orb finished second and Preakness winner Oxbox third behind Palace Malice.
In 2011, Preakness winner Shackleford was fifth and Derby winner Animal Kingdom sixth to Ruler On Ice. Japanese import Lani, who also finished ninth in the Derby, is headed back to Belmont Park on Sunday, where he trained up to the Preakness, in preparation for his own start in the final jewel of the Triple Crown.