Who's the champ?

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TwinSpires Staff

July 31st, 2016

by Ron Flatter

It may not be as important as Clinton vs. Trump. But debate season has already come to full flower with the argument over who is the best 3-year-old racing in America.

Asked if he would make a case for Exaggerator, his jockey Kent Desormeaux said, “I think he just did. It’s going to be only an opinion. I’ll leave those only to you. I get to ride Exaggerator, and I like where I’m at.”

Desormeaux spoke minutes after he staked Exaggerator’s claim to be the leader in the July clubhouse with his convincing, 1½-length win Sunday in the Grade 1 $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park. The early leader in the 3-year-old field – Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist – faded to finish fourth in his second consecutive loss to Exaggerator.

“I’m still proud of this guy,” said Doug O’Neill, who saw Nyquist lose for the second time in a row after starting his career with eight victories. “His hands were kind of tied from the rail, so we were forced to ride a little harder than we wanted to. We will regroup, see how he comes out of it and go from there. No excuses. We will go over the champ later and go from there.”

But is he still “the champ”? Therein lies the debate.

Sunday’s race was almost a carbon copy of Exaggerator’s win in the Preakness, right down to a track made sloppy by off-and-on rain all weekend on the Jersey Shore.  Desormeaux got his horse wound up on the backstretch, bided his time on the final turn and then turned him loose toward the rail to leave the others in his muddy dust. That there was a rejected claim of interference by Rafael Bejarano aboard runner-up American Freedom will be forgotten soon enough.

“I think we have a leg up on the 3-year-old division now,” Exaggerator’s co-owner Matt Bryan said. “We won three Grade 1 races. But there’s a lot of horse racing left. And Nyquist is a great horse.”

Not to be forgotten are the sloppy conditions under which Exaggerator has beaten Nyquist now in their last two meetings. Exaggerator still has yet to win a race longer than a mile on a dry track. A case in point made, believe it or not, by Julie Clark, the assistant who worked the Haskell for Exaggerator’s trainer Keith Desormeaux.

“We’re not complaining,” Clark said. “Obviously our horse loves the ‘off’ going, and that’s great. It works in our favor. But we would like the opportunity to meet these same good-quality horses on a fast track and see how it plays out.”

Asked flat out which horse should be in the lead for top 3-year-old, Clark was circumspect.  “That’s a tough call,” she said. “I’m thinking that Nyquist is heading back home (to California). I’m thinking we have to run against him to hit the top.”

“He will go back to California in the next day or two,” O’Neill said.

With Exaggerator being aimed at the Travers next month at Saratoga, perhaps that climactic showdown with Nyquist will come in a loaded Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita that figures to include California Chrome.

“Let’s hope,” Clark said.

Haskell 2016 photo courtesy of Taylor Ejdys/Equi-Photo