Judging from everything I’ve seen over the last several months, I was all prepared to go out on a limb and say that Exaggerator was a horse who could not only win the Belmont Stakes but win in dominating fashion, in much the same way that Point Given, Risen Star, Easy Goer, and Bet Twice won their Belmonts.
He demonstrated in the Santa Anita Derby and Preakness that he is capable of inhaling his opponents and draw away through the stretch. He appears to have the pedigree to get the mile and a half and the versatility to make his big move at any point in the race; all the prerequisites for a dominating win in the Belmont. And Kent Desormeaux is a Hall of Fame rider who knows how to judge pace and isn’t afraid to try to blow a race wide open with an aggressive move if he feels he has the right kind of horse under him. All those horses mentioned above had their race won by the time they reached the quarter pole.
But then I saw something that got me thinking, and thinking has always proved to be dangerous for me. Since trainer Keith Desormeaux drastically changed Exaggerator’s running style and had him come from far back and make one quick devastating move, he has been a totally different horse. When he gets rolling he is moving at such a rapid speed he has a tendency to take himself out to the middle of the track turning for home. There is nothing wrong with doing that at Belmont, as long as you save some ground on that big sweeping turn and then ease to the outside. Big horses with big strides, like Forego, Point Given, Easy Goer, and Risen Star can afford to lose some ground on the turn, as opposed to horses with a quicker stride.
When I watched Exaggerator’s one and only work at Belmont Park, I noticed when the camera picked him up nearing the five-sixteenths pole he was already on his right lead, which is way too early to have switched leads, especially at Belmont, and there is no way of telling from the video how long he’d already been on his right lead. By doing what he did, his action was off and he wasn’t able to negotiate the turn into the stretch. He kept drifting farther and farther out before he even got to the head of the stretch, cocking his head sharply to the inside, and simply put, blew the turn for home. That is something you don’t want to see in the Belmont Stakes.
The question is, did he fail to switch leads and mess up his action because he got lost on that big turn or was there another reason? The key may very well be the way he cocked his head to the inside while he was bearing out. A horse not handling the turn wouldn’t necessarily turn his head so dramatically. So, did he spot something that distracted him, which in turn caused him to switch to his right lead so early and start bearing out, or shying from whatever it was? That is what those who intend on betting him and picking him to win are going to have to decide. And there is no way of knowing for sure.
He did recover beautifully after straightening into the stretch and managed to level off, coming home his final furlong with smooth, efficient strides. He did have his ears pinned, so he was all business coming to the wire. So, do you focus on the first part of his work or the last?
I have seen horses in the past who have that rapid-fire acceleration on the turn and utilize their proficiency handling turns to win their races not prove as effective at Belmont. For example, Sunday Silence’s big advantage over Easy Goer in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness was his ability to handle the turns far better than his rival. But the long-striding Easy Goer, who was perfectly made for Belmont, overwhelmed Sunday Silence in the Belmont Stakes, as the latter seemed lost on that big turn.
You need a strong galloping type who has a stride efficient enough to handle such a big sweeping turn because he’s on it for so long and can’t afford to lose his action in any way, and that includes switching leads too early.
So what does all this mean in relation to this year’s Belmont Stakes? Do I think any differently of Exaggerator after seeing his last work? Frankly, I have no idea. I still believe he has the speed, versatility, and raw talent to win by open lengths. But I just don’t know what tactics the Desormeaux brothers are going to use and if Kent can launch his move along the inside on the turn and then find a seam to move out, which likely would help keep him stay on the correct lead and prevent him from bearing out if indeed he did have a problem with the turn. Also, can he make a long methodical move rather than a quick burst and just keep picking off horses one by one, which is more conducive to success at Belmont? If he can, then Exaggerator would be more than capable of dominating the race. In short, Desormeaux needs to duplicate his trip in the Preakness. Make a move to get into contention, turn off the engine and let him idle for a while, and then give him gas on the turn for the late run.
But what if he tries to circle the field entering the far turn and loses precious ground? Is Exaggerator going to get his leads messed up and lose his action and come up empty in the stretch? Is he good enough to overcome ground loss on the turn of no return? I’m going to assume he simply became distracted in his work and give him the benefit of the doubt. So although he has a super turn of foot, that should not be his weapon of choice. He can use it early if he gets too far back, but he has to save ground and then keep steadily passing horses.
In the long run it’s all about the trip. We know pretty much where everyone else is going to be and what their strategy is. We just don’t know with Exaggerator, because he’s had so many different running styles throughout his career. What do you do with a horse who has been coming from far back, but has sprinting speed that you can use at any point in the race? That is the aspect of the Belmont I find most intriguing.
As of now, I probably will make one five-horse trifecta box with Exaggerator, Stradivari, Destin, Suddenbreakingnews, and Lani and sit back and see how the race plays out. The overlay here for a straight win bet would be Suddenbreakingnews, who I expect to be closer to the pace under Mike Smith and still have a powerful run at the end. Remember, both his grandsires – A.P. Indy and Afleet Alex – won the Belmont Stakes.
I hate tossing Governor Malibu, because I feel he’s coming into the race sharp, loves the track, and has the pedigree to handle the distance. So he’s the one who scares me the most. Of course, you can always go six horses for a 50-cent trifecta, but I just don’t find much fun in that. I can’t separate Creator, Brody’s Cause, and Cherry Wine, so I will leave them out, although they all are capable of making an impact in the stretch.
From a Thoro-Graph standpoint, the horse who has made steady progress with each race and is now primed to post a winning number is Lani, who has been pointed specifically for this race, is being trained beautifully for stamina, and has a female family that will get him the mile and a half with no problem. He didn't have the speed to match the American horses in the Derby and Preakness, but they'll get slower going this far and this is when he can catch up to them by reverting to his UAE Derby grinding tactics. He’s a fun horse on which to have a saver win bet.
But to me, it’s all about Exaggerator, a throwback type who could emerge from the Belmont a bona fide star…if he gets the right trip and stays focused on the turn.