Exaggerator, Stellar Wind shake things up in divisonal title races

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

August 1st, 2016

As recently as a few days ago the three-year-old championship had the look of a horse race while the older female division had a firm leader whose chances of being toppled appeared rather long. By Sunday evening, the roles had been surprisingly reversed.

Aided somewhat by the quirky result of a maiden, Laoban, taking the Jim Dandy (G2) on Saturday, Exaggerator did his part on Sunday to wrest the lead in the race for three-year-old honors with a good-looking win in the Haskell Invitational (G1).

Astute observers will be quick to point out Exaggerator was also aided to a degree by yet another sloppy track, a surface condition he thrives on. All of his major wins this year -- the Santa Anita Derby (G1), Preakness (G1), and now the Haskell -- have come in the goo.

While it might in a way seem, for lack of a better term, "unfair" that Exaggerator has catapulted to the head of the class as a result of his prowess on off tracks, battling the elements and what comes with it is as old as the sport itself. Lots of championships have been decided in less-than-ideal conditions, and so far Mother Nature has been on Exaggerator's side.

Whether she will be lurking around Saratoga on the last Saturday of August remains to be seen. If so, Exaggerator will be doubly tough in the Travers (G1) and might virtually sew up division honors then and there.

Nyquist, who most observers felt was still the nation's top sophomore colt heading into the Haskell, endured the worst defeat of his career at Monmouth. In a race reminiscent of the Preakness, Nyquist dueled on or near the lead through fast fractions and left nothing in the tank for the stretch.

James Scully argues that inside posts in the Preakness and Haskell have proven detrimental to Nyquist, and that it would behoove jockey Mario Gutierrez to ensure the colt stalks from an outside position in future engagements.

There may be something to that, but on a more macro level these last two efforts from Nyquist are what I kind of envisioned his three-year-old campaign looking like after watching his wins late last year in the FrontRunner (G1) and Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1). My takeaway at the time was that, due in part to his pedigree and running style, Nyquist would struggle to maintain his position at the top of the class as the distances increased. I was certainly proved wrong about that through the Kentucky Derby (G1), but now that his opposition have caught up and know how to exploit his weaknesses, there may be a glimmer of truth to my earlier opinion.

This is important as the race for the three-year-old title presumably now rests on the outcome of two races at 1 1/4 miles: the Travers, which will be Exaggerator's next port of call, and the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1). As things now stand, I'd be surprised to see Nyquist be competitive in them if he contests either or both.

Another colt whose championship claims were impaired at the weekend was Belmont (G1) winner Creator. Granted, his connections probably had their eyes on getting a good prep in him for the Travers and he was a victim of a false pace, but trailing all the way around one lap of the Saratoga oval was hardly encouraging. He might be the value play in the "Midsummer Derby," but he has few clear paths to the title other than winning out the rest of the season.

As much derision as he received from winning the Jim Dandy, including from myself in a joking way on Twitter, Laoban actually ran a strong race for a horse that had not previously won. While his early splits were slow, he covered the last five furlongs in :59.32. That was enough to keep Governor Malibu and Destin, who had every chance to win from his stalking position, at bay. Mohaymen's poor start clearly had an adverse effect on his chances of winning, but I question whether he's talented enough to fully rebound in the Travers.

In regards to the older female division, we now have a horse race. Beholder, by virtue of her connections' intent on pursuing a title defense in the Pacific Classic (G1) against males, was widely thought to have a built-in advantage. A potential victory there, especially one against California Chrome, would have all but shut the door on her rivals' title aspirations long before the end of the season. Of course, even that was predicated on getting through her pre-Pacific Classic trials unscathed.

That turned out not to be the case as Stellar Wind, the 2015 champion three-year-old filly, beat Beholder on the square in the Clement L. Hirsch (G1) on Saturday.

Richard Mandella, trainer of Beholder, has reportedly taken the blame for the defeat, suggesting he might not have had Beholder at her best while underestimating Stellar Wind.

"She came out of it good but tired," Mandella said on Sunday. "We knew [Stellar Wind] was a good filly but we didn’t expect that big of a race."

Beholder's status for the Pacific Classic is now up in the air, and thus, too, her built-in advantage for divisional honors. She'd have nothing to lose by staying on the Pacific Classic route, but a theoretical lopsided loss to California Chrome would all but force connections to point to the Breeders' Cup Distaff (G1) rather than the Classic (G1). Not only would rivals like Stellar Wind, Curalina, Cavorting, Forever Unbridled, and I'm a Chatterbox be in the mix, you also have the possibility of Songbird scrambling the picture further if she authoritatively beats all of her elders on Breeders' Cup Friday.

One last takeaway from the Hirsch is that Stellar Wind is a lot better than many critics have been giving her credit for. Although she won the three-year-old title by an overwhelming margin in the Eclipse voting (also receiving my support), she's been a frequent target by some who found her sophomore record thin compared to previous title winners. The criticisms intensified after she was beaten comfortably by Beholder in the Vanity (G1).

While her form this year has no bearing on her qualifications in 2015, handing a future Hall of Famer like Beholder her first intra-division loss in two years should put to rest suggestions that she was one of the least worthy Eclipse Award winners in recent years.

(Exaggerator: Bill Denver/EquiPhoto)

(Stellar Wind: Benoit Photos)