Nyquist, Exaggerator to meet again in Penn Derby, but will it ultimately mean anything?

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

August 29th, 2016

If everything falls into place, Nyquist and Exaggerator will face each other for a fifth time this year on September 24 in the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby (G2) at Parx. As exciting a prospect as that would have sounded not too long ago, the question now is whether the result will mean anything in the long term.

Not only did Arrogate's tour de force in Saturday's Travers (G1) shake up the Saratoga history books in one of the most singularly devastating performances by a three-year-old in recent times, but it also turned on its head a divisional race that seemed destined to involve only the above-named classic winners.

Taking no chances at risking a bounce off a piece of arrogant showmanship that smashed General Assembly's 37-year-old Travers stakes record and netted a 124 BRIS Speed rating, Bob Baffert is likely to train Arrogate up to the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) on November 5.

If Arrogate somehow runs back to (unlikely) or comes close to replicating (possible) his Travers in the Breeders' Cup, upending the likes of California Chrome and Frosted in the process, there is no question he would be entitled to the three-year-old championship and probably Horse of the Year.

A divisional title and Horse of the Year off essentially a two stakes-start campaign? Welcome to the new era when virtually anything is possible.

For Arrogate, it's an all-or-nothing proposition in the Breeders' Cup. Lose that one, and even if he out-finishes one or both of the other two, his record would be too slight to earn a division title. However, beating all of the world's best dirt horses would clinch it and more.

You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who feels either Nyquist or Exaggerator can win the Classic without some major defections and/or favorable conditions suddenly popping up. That being said, the Pennsylvania Derby will, presumably, provide one of them the necessary insurance to claim championship honors in the event of Arrogate losing the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Thankfully, the hypothetical question of "Who would you vote for right now?" is just that. The records of both leading candidates are seriously flawed for different reasons.

I can understand the sentiment some hold that Nyquist currently belongs on top due to the fact Exaggerator's affinity for mud, perhaps more so than his actual talent, has kept him in the running this far. But if the Haskell Invitational (G1) showed Exaggerator was purely a mudlark, it also suggested that Nyquist has his own dependencies on favorable conditions, especially from a pace standpoint.

The fact is Nyquist's foes have found his weakness and are exploiting it effectively, and he's offered no response. Perhaps he can turn things around in the Pennsylvania Derby, or maybe he'll continue a War Emblem-like tailspin (with a relatively thinner record) and leave a significant number of folks at the end of the year wondering whether he is indeed the best three-year-old out there.

Exaggerator has now run two very poor races in a row on fast tracks, in the Belmont S. (G1) and Travers, although Daily Racing Form reported Sunday that mucous was found in a post-race scope and that he coughed a lot following the Travers. And having watched Kent Desormeaux ride for a long time, he has a tendency to protect mounts he feels are hopelessly beaten, which might in part explain the large margins of defeat Exaggerator incurred in both races.

With five wins and placings in nine starts on fast tracks, I'm slightly less skeptical than others that Exaggerator's completely incapable of putting it all together on a dry strip, though the evidence seems overwhelming at this point. And since more or less adopting a one-run style earlier this year, the colt is very much pace dependent.

Hopefully, the result of the Pennsylvania Derby can clear up concerns surrounding these two colts. Whether that result will mean anything come the evening of November 5 remains to be seen.

(Bill Denver/Equi-Photo)