Exaggerator, Desormeaux keep it cool in Preakness

- -

Kent Desormeaux shivered and shook, let out a few yelps and then one big “Aaaah” as he sat down in the Pimlico Race Course jocks’ room after the Preakness Saturday.

“It’s so much warmer in here than it is out there,” said the jockey who guided Exaggerator to a win in the rainy, muddy, cold and wet Preakness a half-hour earlier. “The only thing worse than being cold is being cold and wet.”

Of course, Desormeaux smiled as he said all that.

And smiled some more as valet Jamie Ryan, stewards Ross Pearce and Russell Derderian and jockeys Corey Lanerie, Edgar Prado and Trevor McCarthy offered congratulations. Desormeaux and Exaggerator defeated Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist and nine others in the $1.5 million race, navigating a sloppy track and a steady drizzle on a 50-degree day, to win by 3 1/2 lengths for Big Chief Racing, Head of Plains Partners, Rocker O Ranch and partners. Trained by Desormeaux’s brother Keith, the son of 2007 Preakness winner Curlin ousted Nyquist for the first time in five meetings to improve to 5-for-11 lifetime with earnings of $2,971,120.

But all this jockey wanted to do was get warm. He rode the race, gave NBC an interview on horseback, jogged up the stretch to salute the fans, walked a furlong down the turf course toward the infield winner’s circle, posed for photos while NBC returned from a commercial break, took part in the official trophy ceremonies and then sat through the post-race press conference in an infield tent.

By the time he got to the jocks’ room, he felt like a guy whose boat capsized off the coast of Maine.

“Ohhhhh . . . man, I’m cold.”

He was also overjoyed, searching for adjectives as only he can to describe what it’s like to win the Preakness on a horse trained by your brother, on a track where you learned to become a jockey, 31 years into a Hall of Fame career.

“For me now, knowing what I know about Maryland, my favorite place is on the cupola next to the Woodlawn Vase. That’s my favorite place in Maryland. Every time I come to Maryland, I want to win the Preakness. Who wouldn’t?”

Desormeaux rocked back on the bench in front of his locker, stuck his feet in the air and Ryan pulled off the racing boots. Then Desormeaux stood and Ryan pulled off the tight, water-logged silks. When the valet tried to unpin the 5 from the right shoulder of the silks, Desormeaux stopped him.

“No Mo, that’s mine. I’m keeping that. Tell them it got lost or something.”

Ryan stuffed it in a bag with the dirty laundry, a souvenir headed back to California of a big race.

And what a race.

Desormeaux “walked the course” during the post parade and warm-up time aboard Exaggerator, and discovered that – though the very inside was a gooey mess – the two path was pretty good. With that in mind, the jockey let his horse break with the leaders and immediately worked inside. From stall two, Uncle Lino blasted to the front for Fernando Perez. Two paths to his outside, Awesome Speed responded to Jevian Toledo’s urging and made a play for the lead. Between them, Nyquist also rode a sharp start to the front as Mario Gutierrez let the favorite roll. Past the finish line the first time, Nyquist led Uncle Lino by a neck with Awesome Speed another neck behind in third. Exaggerator was eighth and as close to the rail as anyone in the field of 11.

“I always gig him because he breaks tremendously,” Desormeaux said of the start. “I pop him a couple of times in the mouth, just a couple of times, and he comes off the bridle. The Derby I did it more than twice and today I only did it twice because I didn’t think they were going that fast. I let him roll to the wire and then picked him up and asked him to wait.”

Nyquist led through a first quarter-mile in :22.38, but had pressure from Uncle Lino to the inside. Awesome Speed sat third, followed by Collected and Stradivari. Seventh and pulling, Exagerator waited – still inside everyone. After a half in :46.56, Nyquist led against pressure from all sides as Collected joined the group four wide. Behind them, Stradivari loomed with Exaggerator sixth, close, inside and on hold. Six furlongs went by in 1:11.97.

“He totally dragged me to the three-eighths pole and then I had to slow him down and wait for space,” Desormeaux said. “It was there, but I didn’t want it because it was way too soon. He got me there so easy, man – wow – floating.”

Desormeaux stayed on the rail for nearly the whole turn, drafting to third behind Uncle Lino and Nyquist without doing a thing. Just before the quarter pole, Exaggerator came out from behind the two leaders – his first strides with horses on his left since the start – and swarmed Nyquist. By midstretch, Exaggerator was back in the two path and drawing clear. He won by 3 1/2 lengths over a late-running Cherry Wine, who had a nose on Nyquist after 1 3/16 miles in 1:58.31.

The victory was Desormeaux’s third in the Preakness – following Real Quiet in 1998 and Big Brown 10 years later to go with three Kentucky Derby wins, a Belmont Stakes win and some 5,700 more in a career that started in 1986.

The jockey’s brother was saddling his first Preakness starter, also his first Derby starter, in a training career that began in 1988 and meandered in all directions only to find a new level starting in 2013. Keith Desormeaux spent $110,000 to buy Exaggerator for Big Chief Racing as a yearling at Keeneland September 2014. The dark bay son of Curlin and the Vindication mare Dawn Raid – bred in Kentucky by Joseph Murphy of Stoneleigh Farm – made his debut last June, finishing fifth behind Nyquist in a 5-furlong maiden race. Stretched a furlong for a July race at Del Mar, Exaggerator won and repeated the victory when shipped east for the Saratoga Special in August. He was second to Brody’s Cause in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity and fourth behind Nyquist in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, both at Keeneland, then capped his 2-year-old season with a win in the $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot.

Exaggerator began his 3-year-old campaign with a second (to Nyquist) in the San Vicente, then a third in the San Felipe and a win (with Nyquist in Florida) in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby. Nyquist made it 4-0 against Exaggerator in the Kentucky Derby. Two weeks later, everything was different in the Preakness. Exaggerator didn’t get as far back, Nyquist set a pressured pace, rain made the track sloppy (it was muddy for the Delta Jackpot and sloppy for the Santa Anita Derby).

All week at Pimlico, Keith Desormeaux talked about his horse’s hardiness and ability to recover between races.

“That’s part of the equation,” the trainer said in the post-race press conference. “But the most important thing is this horse is – I’ve repeated this for two weeks – is his ability to recover from his efforts. And he recovered from the Derby quickly. Even today, first comment, when he pulled up here at the winner’s circle was, ‘Keith, he cooled out already.’ And the horse has his heart rate down again. His respiratory rate was almost to normal and you could see a real calm look in his eyes.

“Most horses when they run that huge effort, they’re bug-eyed and rattled and sweated up even. He was totally calm. So it’s partly due because he gets over this track like a duck to water for lack of a better cliche. But that’s the main reason, his ability to recover.”

Fit, ready and fully recovered from the Derby, he put together his best race on a big stage and took his 46-year-old jockey on one wet, muddy, joyful ride even if afterward Kent Desormeaux just wanted a hot shower.

He’d spoken to fellow Cajun Lanerie, told 22-year-old kid McCarthy to keep up the good work, slapped hands and backs with Ryan (himself a former jockey), shook hands with fellow veteran Prado (who won the last and was packing for a ride at Delaware Park Wednesday), sipped a half-inch of champagne from a paper cup, wrapped a towel around his waist, grabbed some soap and shampoo and headed for the shower.

He finally looked warm.

Equibase chart.

For more in-depth Preakness coverage, see July edition of Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred magazine.