History not totally on Exaggerator's side in Belmont, but it might not matter
In this space a couple of weeks ago, I looked back at previous scenarios when Kentucky Derby (G1) winners proved vulnerable as odds-on favorites in the Preakness (G1). Based on past examples, I theorized the most likely way for Nyquist to lose in Baltimore was for him to get sucked into pressing, or racing very close to, a fast pace, much like Swale did in 1984.
As it turned out, Nyquist wound up a head off the lead through the fastest opening quarter in Preakness history and then proceeded to set the interior fractions while being hounded by early leader Uncle Lino. Exaggerator, who had lost to Nyquist on four previous occasions, turned out to be the main beneficiary and now moves on to the June 11 Belmont S. (G1) as the likely favorite. Nyquist will not join him after coming down with an illness in the aftermath of the Preakness.
When Exaggerator breaks from the starting gate in the Belmont, he will be just the third horse since 1966 to lose the Kentucky Derby, beat the Derby winner in the Preakness, and move on to the Belmont without facing the Derby winner for a third time. While it's hard to draw many conclusions from such a miniscule sample size, it's worth noting that in both prior scenarios the Preakness winner lost the Belmont.
In 1992, Pine Bluff made amends for his Derby loss to Lil E. Tee by winning the Preakness as a lukewarm favorite. However, he went off as the second choice in the Belmont to A.P. Indy, who had been viewed as the best American-based three-year-old heading into the Derby but was scratched the morning of the race due to a bruised foot. After skipping the Preakness and impressively winning the Peter Pan (G2) instead, A.P. Indy was made the 11-10 favorite for the Belmont and won by three parts of a length over English invader My Memoirs, with Pine Bluff a neck farther back in third.
In 2007, Exaggerator's sire Curlin rebounded from his third in the Derby to edge Street Sense in the Preakness, was sent away as the 11-10 favorite in the Belmont, but lost a thrilling, stretch-long duel with the filly Rags to Riches, who had previously taken the Kentucky Oaks (G1) in dazzling style.
Interestingly, the previous two horses that entered the Belmont under the same scenario, Tom Rolfe (1965) and Bold Ruler (1957), also lost the "Test of the Champion." You have to go back to Native Dancer (1953) to find a Derby-losing Preakness winner who won the Belmont without the Derby winner in the lineup.
In the Pine Bluff and Curlin examples, both colts lost the Belmont to Triple Crown newcomers. Of the horses other than Exaggerator considered probable or questionable for the Belmont, only Governor Malibu and Wild About Deb would be running in their first classic. Neither can be confused with an A.P. Indy or Rags to Riches, both multiple Grade 1 winners by this point in their careers. Indeed, the respective second- and third-place finishers in the Peter Pan have yet to run a race as remotely fast as Exaggerator has in his past several starts.
No current Belmont probable can match Exaggerator from a BRIS Speed rating perspective, so if he proves at all vulnerable it will be due to other factors. Much has been made thus far about the obvious lack of pace in this Belmont. While Exaggerator has shown tactical foot in the past, he's become much more formidable when asked for one sustained rally from the back.
While it's not ideal that Exaggerator might be forced to change tactics to some degree, he wouldn't be alone as none of the others have ever attempted to go wire-to-wire. A promising rival like Stradivari, who ran really well in the Preakness despite a lack of stakes experience, may or may not find running on the front end agreeable if asked to do so, slow pace or not.
In some respects history is not exactly on Exaggerator's side, but given the competition he's facing and his own record it might not matter.
(Jessie Holmes/EquiSport Photos)