onward and upward from Belmont Day

Belmont Stakes day got off to a good start for Curlin babies, with Connect posting an authoritative allowance win.  Connect, of course, proved that was no fluke this past Friday when he returned to win the Curlin Stakes.

Two others who raced on Belmont day did not fare quite as well.  Curalina (Whatdreamsrmadeof, by Graeme Hall) went off the betting favourite in the Ogden Phipps (GI), off her sensational La Troienne victory.  She could only muster fourth place.  Later in the day, Preakness winner Exaggerator (Dawn Raid, by Vindication) went off favoured in the Belmont Stakes (GI), but had nothing late and finished eleventh out of thirteen in the field.

Both Curalina and Exaggerator returned today, trying to put their Belmont Day disappointments behind them.

Curalina returned in the Shuvee Handicap (GIII) at Saratoga, going a mile and an eighth over the slop.  The distance suited her well, and it was a bit of a class break from her most recent spots.  The biggest question, however, was the field size.  The race drew just four entrants, giving it a strong chance of turning it into a chess match.

Both Carrumba and Curalina went off at 4/5, and much of the race looked like a match between the odds-on co-favourites.  Curalina came sharply out of the gate, but Carrumba sent along the rail as well.  Carrumba quickly took the front, but John Velazquez kept Curalina close in range.  He ensured that Curalina remained glued to Carrumba’s outside, no more than half a length off the lead.

Jose Ortiz asked Carrumba for more run through the far turn, and she responded.  Velazquez, in turn, pushed Curalina along a bit more.  She soon began to close the gap.  As the field turned for home, they were even.

Then Curalina forged in front.

Finally Velazquez really asked Curalina.  In a moment, was gone.  She showed all her class, skipping easily over the slop to get home nine and a quarter lengths clear of Carrumba.

Once again, the waters will likely get deeper from here.  But, Curalina found redemption after her Ogden Phipps disappointment, and won the Shuvee as easily as she should have.  Hopefully she builds on that, and gets a rematch with Stellar Wind in about three months at Santa Anita.

Later in the day, at Monmouth, Exaggerator made his first start after finishing up the track in the Belmont.  The plans for that start had gone through some revisions: first he was going to go to the Jim Dandy (GII), then his connections scrapped that plan, and then he rather abruptly pointed to the Haskell Invitational Stakes (GI).

The Haskell did not turn up easy.  Though it only drew a field of six, his foes were strong.  Nyquist and Gun Runner, the 1-3 finishers in the Kentucky Derby, showed up for another round with Exaggerator.  American Freedom was up and coming, the winner of the Iowa Derby.  Sunny Ridge, the New Jersey-bred, had been pointing to the Haskell all along.  Awesome Slew was ambitiously placed, but he had done good work over the Monmouth course.

Though the short field did Exaggerator’s running style no favours, the weather did not hurt his chances.  Though his strong second in the Kentucky Derby proved Exaggerator could run to an elite level on a dry track as well, it is no secret that he is an excellent mud horse, as his Santa Anita Derby and his Preakness both showed.  He was no lock given the class of horses that he faced, but the rain played to one of Exaggerator’s strengths.

Furthermore, there was a little bit of family precedent for big wins in the Monmouth slop.  If Curlin could have one of his finest hours there in the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Classic…could Exaggerator have his day in the Haskell?

In a word, yes.

Exaggerator dropped well off the early pace.  That turned out to be a blessing, as the pace was a contentious affair.  Nyquist broke on top and grabbed the lead, but American Freedom, Awesome Slew, and Gun Runner all showed some early interest.

Coming into the backstretch, Nyquist led, with American Freedom pressing closest.  Exaggerator commenced a truly long, sustained run.  Trailing early, he began making up ground as soon as the field hit the back straight.  He gradually improved position: regaining touch with the field, then eclipsing Sunny Ridge, then taking aim on the main pack.  Awesome Slew was dropping back out of it by the time the field hit the far turn, giving Exaggerator only three more foes to pass.

Exaggerator swung widest into the stretch, but the ground loss proved no matter.  Exaggerator cleared the fading Gun Runner, drew even with Nyquist and American Freedom, and kicked into another gear passing the furlong pole.  He bid that pair goodbye, skipping home a length and a half clear of hard-trying American Freedom.

With that, Exaggerator not only got back on track after his disappointing Belmont Stakes, but paved a path for his future.  The Haskell is a Breeders’ Cup Win and You’re In race, so Exaggerator has a place in the starting gate for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.  Bayern and American Pharoah parlayed Haskell victories into Breeders’ Cup Classic wins in each of the last two years — perhaps Exaggerator can follow suit?  There is a long way from here to there, but today’s victory was a step in the right direction.

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