BALTIMORE — There was one easy explanation as to why Exaggerator, an otherwise brilliant 3-year-old racehorse, had lost four times to rival Nyquist in four previous tries, at racetracks from Southern California to Louisville. But Keith Desormeaux, Exaggerator’s trainer and a horseman for more than half his life, was unwilling to acknowledge the other horse was simply better. Neither, it is safe to say, was Exaggerator.
“I can tell you this,” Desormeaux said one morning earlier in the week. “Exaggerator doesn’t have one nervous bone in his body about Nyquist.”
Near the end of a cold, gray, rain-filled day at Pimlico Race Course, in the 141st running of the Preakness Stakes, Exaggerator finally caught Nyquist. He did so with a breathtaking charge across a track that was reduced to soup by the incessant rain, punctuating his 3 1/2-length victory by flinging mud in his rival’s face as they came down the stretch, their views now switched – Exaggerator with nothing but open track in front of him, Nyquist seeing only Exaggerator’s rear end.
There will be no Triple Crown winner this season, no repeat of American Pharoah’s historic sweep of a year ago. Nyquist, the Kentucky Derby champion, undefeated in eight previous races, had everything go wrong for him Saturday – the worst track conditions he has ever faced, a trip that was far from ideal and a blistering early pace he could not keep up – and faded to third at the end, behind both Exaggerator and Cherry Wine.
“They’re not machines,” said Doug O’Neill, Nyquist’s trainer. “Being eight for eight, we kept thinking this horse would never lose, but they all lose one time or another. . . . He didn’t bring it today, and more than anything Exaggerator just ran a monstrous race.”
The entire visible world, from the soupy racetrack to the trash-strewn infield to the rowhouse rooftops in the distance – as well as a record crowd of 135,256 – appeared to be drenched to the point of sinking Saturday evening as the 11-horse field was loaded into the starting gate.
Breaking from the No. 5 spot, Exaggerator’s rider, Kent Desormeaux – Keith’s brother – let his horse sit well off the lead, while Nyquist, breaking from the No. 3 position, set a sizzling early pace, shooting to the lead and making it to the quarter-mile pole in a blistering 22.38 seconds. It was too fast. By the end, with Exaggerator starting to surge, when jockey Mario Gutierrez asked for more, Nyquist didn’t have it to give. In a final, last-ditch effort down the stretch, Gutierrez swung his horse outside, but it was too late.
“I could feel Exaggerator coming,” Gutierrez said. “There was nothing we could do.”
For days, the connections behind the 11 Preakness horses were aware of the weather conditions that awaited Saturday, with forecasts all week calling for cool temperatures and rain chances of between 90 and 100 percent.
The all-day downpours never materialized, but the entire facility, nestled into a working-class neighborhood, was subjected to a steady, cold drizzle that had the same effect – drenched patrons in the infield and the grandstands, and muddy conditions on the track. About an hour before the Preakness was to start, the drizzle intensified into a light rain, and by the time the race started, the track was covered in standing water.
Despite Nyquist’s well-deserved reputation for versatility – with five Grade 1 stakes wins on five different tracks entering Saturday – Exaggerator may have been the best “mudder” in the field, having won the Santa Anita Derby in April by 6 1/4 lengths on a sloppy track. That experience almost certainly came in handy Saturday.
When Kent Desormeaux drove Exaggerator down near the fence – where the track was wettest – in the first furlong of the race, Keith Desormeaux said of his brother, “I wanted to strangle him. I was like, ‘What’s he doing?’ “
Much later, with victory complete, the trainer had a far different take on the jockey: “That’s why he’s in the Hall of Fame – for those kinds of decisions.”
Should they square off again in the Belmont Stakes in three weeks – Keith Desormeaux said Exaggerator would be there “with bells on,” while O’Neill said Team Nyquist would huddle Sunday to decide – Exaggerator and Nyquist, for once, will be on more equal footing, both having claimed victory in a Triple Crown race.
Exaggerator’s best attribute, according to his trainer, is his ability to bounce back. Saturday evening, as they shared a fist bump following their Preakness win, Kent Desormeaux marveled to his brother that Exaggerator had already “cooled out.”
“His heart rate was down,” Keith Desormeaux said. “His respiratory rate was normal. You could see he had a real calm look in his eyes. Most horses when they run that huge effort, they’re bug-eyed and rattled and sweated up. He was totally calm.
“He gets over this track,” the trainer said, “like a duck to water.”