Last year was supposed to be the dream year on the Triple Crown for the Desormeaux brothers - trainer Keith and jockey Kent. They had won the 2014 Breeders' Cup Juvenile with Texas Red, and the breeding of the horse made it seem like he had only scratched the surface of what was possible. As is so often the case, though, things didn't work out. The horse struggled with injuries, and another California-based runner won the Triple Crown. Luckily, the brothers only had to wait a year for their next shot at redemption. After winning the Santa Anita Derby - a race that has produced two Derby winners in the previous four editions - the brothers are heading to Kentucky with a serious Derby contender in Exaggerator. It could be a very big year for them. In this wide open and very confusing Derby year, the horse - fresh off the best speed figure posted by a three year old contender all year - has as much of a shot as any other of wearing roses.
Last race: There are some races that make perfect sense and others that just make my head hurt when I think about them. The 2016 Santa Anita Derby definitely falls into the latter category. There is just so much uncertainty that I don't really know what it means. The first thing we have to do is give Exaggerator credit. He ran a beautiful race, winning by more than six lengths and making it look easy. He looked like a champ, and you can't take that away from him. On an ideal day in normal circumstances it's the kind of performance from which Derby favorites are born. Unfortunately, conditions were far from ideal and the circumstances weren't normal.
First, the track. It was raining all day - the one day a year in Southern California that it does that. As a result the track was sloppy and had been sealed. It was a mess. Mor Spirit, the favorite in the race, clearly hated the surface. I'm not convinced that second choice Danzig Candy was any happier. Exaggerator loved it. He has now run three times on a track labeled muddy or worse, and he has two wins and a second - for a cool $1.3 million in purses. On fast tracks he's a much less special 2-1-1 in six outings. So, if the rain gods appear on Derby day this year we'll be all over this horse. But what happens if the conditions are less aquatic?
Second, there is the pace. I don't know what happened to Danzig Candy, though I assume discomfort helped him to lose his mind. Whatever it was, he set truly insane fractions through the first half mile - speeds that wouldn't be sustainable at six furlongs, never mind nine. That ridiculous early speed set up the race perfectly for horses coming off the pace - like Exaggerator did.
So, the horse loved the surface and got a dream trip. He had a perfect result, but what happens if he doesn't get the same dream trip in the Derby - as horses almost never do in the Derby?
Prior experience: We talked about his off-track success - a win in the Delta Downs jackpot in November and a second in the Breeders' Juvenile at Keeneland in early October. Sandwiched between those was a decent fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile - behind two or three horses he'll see again in Kentucky, including likely favorite Nyquist. Losing to Nyquist is a trend - he also did it in his maiden debut in June and in the San Vicente in February. The Santa Anita Derby turned the tables on other rivals - he was third in the San Felipe behind Danzig Candy and Mor Spirit.
Trainer: Keith Desormeaux has been training since 1988, but it is only recently that he has broken through on the big stage. His first graded stakes win only came in 2013, and Exaggerator's three graded stakes wins represent a third of all of the highest level of races that he has won in his career. As is so often the case, though, the issues have been with opportunity and not talent along the way. I don't think anyone would suggest he is the planet's best trainer, but he knows his stuff and he clearly clicks with this horse, so he's an asset here.
Jockey: Kent Desormeaux knows a thing or two about winning Triple Crown races. He has won the Derby three times and adds two Preakness wins and a Belmont to that tally. The hall of famer is a long way from his peak - he won a ridiculous 597 races in 1989 - but he is riding better now than he was a couple of years ago and seems to be renewed by this stronger professional connection with his brother. He's an asset.
Breeding: I'm a sucker for the breeding here. Exaggerator is a son of the great Curlin, so we know that he will have little issue with the distances demanded in the Triple Crown. Damsire Vindication, trained by Bob Baffert, won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in 2002 and seemed destined to be my Derby pick in 2003, but he was injured early on that year and never ran again. He's a son of Seattle Slew, and his damsire is one of Australia's all-time great racehorses, so the breeding is stellar, too. Vindication could be a great sire right now, but he died in 2008 before he had really had a chance to shine. Exaggerator, in short, is bred to be a Triple Crown contender.
Odds: BetOnline has Exaggerator at +750 to win the Derby, which makes him the second choice behind only Nyquist at +280. That's a serious change from the final official Derby futures pool from Churchill Downs, which took place the weekend before the Santa Anita Derby. There he opened at 20/1 on the morning line and drifted up to 27/1 by the time it closed.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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