So far, Curlin’s hopes for a Triple Crown horse this year are pinned on one colt: Exaggerator (Dawn Raid, by Vindication).
Exaggerator has been on the shelf since his gutsy victory in the Delta Jackpot (GIII) at the end of last November. The quality of the horses coming out of the Jackpot varies quite a bit from year to year, but a few others from that race have come back and suggested some real promise. Second-place Sunny Ridge, who gave Exaggerator a serious challenge in the Jackpot, has since won the Withers (GIII). Whitmore’s fifth-place finish suggested the Delta bullring did not suit him, but since then he posted an impressive allowance victory at Oaklawn, and returned today to finish second in the Southwest Stakes (GIII) after a tough trip.
Instead of placing Exaggerator straight into route races, trainer Keith Desormeaux decided to start him in the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes (GII). Though the race offered no Kentucky Derby points, it hardly turned up soft. Last year’s champion juvenile, the undefeated Nyquist, also made his three-year-old bow in the race. The field, scratched down to five, also included Sheikh of Sheikhs: unlikely for the Derby trail, but a runner who has shown promise as a sprinter.
Exaggerator did not tarnish Nyquist’s mark, but he made good account of himself nonetheless.
It was Sheikh of Sheikhs and Nyquist who sent to the front early, but Exaggerator tracked close to the pace. He was only about a length back early — closer than he had ever been, though not much farther off the early going than he was in the Jackpot.
As the field came down the backstretch, Nyquist edged into the lead. Exaggerator kept him in his sights, however, and began his earnest advance through the far turn. Approaching the stretch, those three were in a line, and even Denman’s Call had advanced to within a length. Only El Charro lagged.
In the blink of an eye, the field sorted itself out. Nyquist reasserted himself on the lead. Exaggerator responded to rider Kent Desormeaux’s urging, trying to stay with him. Denman’s Call kept trying along the rail, but was not quite in the same league. Sheikh of Sheikhs beat his retreat.
Nyquist won by a measured length and a half. He proved that he came back just as sharp at three as he was at two, and the way he responded to Exaggerator’s challenge proved once again that he flat-out wants to win horse races. No matter your opinion on how Nyquist will handle a mile and a quarter,
There was no shame in coming in a length and a half behind Nyquist today, and Exaggerator has upside going forward. The general tendency of Curlin’s progeny to improve with age and experience leaves open the fact that he will get better. This was also his first race off the winter lay — and, remember, it took until his second start for Exaggerator to get his bearings last year.
Exaggerator will have to take a step forward to beat Nyquist, or at least handle longer distances significantly better than that one to beat him later in the year. However, today looked like an outing from which Exaggerator got something useful. He looked physically fit, he got a solid race under him, and he remains a promising prospect for the prep season.