The combination of pouring rain that turned the track into a sea of slop, and an unsustainable pace set by Danzing Candy, propelled Exaggerator to a visually impressive form reversal in Saturday’s $1,000,690 Santa Anita Derby (G1). Now trainer Keith Desormeaux and his Hall of Fame jockey brother, Kent, are Kentucky Derby (G1)-bound, one year after the heartbreak of missing out with the injured Texas Red.
Exaggerator was coming off a third to Danzing Candy and Mor Spirit in the San Felipe (G2). A totally different proposition in these conditions, the mud-lover overturned the pecking order among Southern California’s Kentucky Derby contenders.
Well, not entirely. The top Southern California-trained contender remains unbeaten champion Nyquist, even though he shipped to Gulfstream Park to plunder last Saturday’s Florida Derby (G1) and is now residing at Keeneland. He was flattered in absentia here, considering that he beat Exaggerator in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) and in their mutual reappearance in the San Vicente (G2).
But while Nyquist contented himself with a one-turn prep at Santa Anita before venturing east, the other locally trained hopefuls were slugging it out in the two-turn preps. Thus Mor Spirit vaulted to prominence with scores in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) and Robert B. Lewis (G3). Most recently, Danzing Candy earned immediate credibility by toppling Mor Spirit and Exaggerator in the San Felipe.
The Santa Anita Derby story line revolved around Danzing Candy (whether he’d put on another front-running clinic) and Mor Spirit (whether he’d move forward off a stiff series of works). A fast track may have helped to answer those questions, but the slop has intruded as a complicating factor in the analysis.
Danzing Candy was expected to face sterner pace pressure this time, but trainer Cliff Sise Jr. stuck to his guns about going to the lead. It would have been informative to see Danzing Candy cope with a different tactic. Yet he blasted ahead and simply went too fast, careering through fractions of :22.15, :45.24 and 1:10.12. Uncle Lino was his nearest pursuer, attended by Smokey Image, and Mor Spirit was reserved in fourth.
Exaggerator – who has at times been asked to move a tad early – was given the ultimate patient ride by Desormeaux. As many as 16 1/2 lengths behind on the backstretch, Exaggerator commenced his bid nearing the far turn. By that point, most of his rivals were already struggling.
Danzing Candy appeared vulnerable as Uncle Lino drew closer around the far turn and served it up to him entering the stretch. Mor Spirit was flailing further back, and you could almost feel how stunned he was as Exaggerator hurtled past him at a high rate of speed.
Circling the field and reveling in the slop, Exaggerator inhaled Uncle Lino and Danzing Candy and shot clear in a couple of strides. Now the race was in utter freefall mode. The mile split was 1:36.30 – as useful a move as that was from Exaggerator, it shows how badly the leaders were stopping at the same time. Exaggerator extended his margin to 6 1/4 lengths at the wire despite taking :13.36 to navigate his final furlong and finishing 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.66 To be fair, the Curlin colt was doing it all easily, but the point remains that he was the only one really enjoying it out there.
Mor Spirit belatedly clunked up for second, overtaking Uncle Lino. Although all sloppy tracks aren’t created equal, I wouldn’t be too quick to blame the track for his lackluster effort. He was a much better second in the Churchill slop in last November’s Kentucky Jockey Club (G2). More concerning, Mor Spirit was again outmoved on the far turn before trudging on late. That’s typically where the Kentucky Derby is won, and Mor Spirit’s going to have to improve his turn mechanics if he wants to be a serious factor.
Danzing Candy reported home fourth, 4 3/4 lengths astern of Uncle Lino, whom he’d demolished a long way in the San Felipe. This race is easily tossed as an aberration for Danzing Candy, but heading to Churchill, I’d feel more comfortable if his tactical adaptability had been established. Now he’s in the position of either trying to go wire to wire over 1 1/4 miles, or experimenting with a new stalking style. From my perspective, that’s why you experiment in the preps so the trial-and-error phase is over by Kentucky Derby time.
Exaggerator added 100 Kentucky Derby points to his account. He now has a total of 126, including points earned by his victory in the Delta Downs Jackpot (G3) (also in the mud), second in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1), third in the San Felipe, and fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Exaggerator’s first stakes score in the Saratoga Special (G2), and gallant second to Nyquist in the San Vicente, were not Derby points races. His overall resume reads 9-4-2-1, $1,671,120.
Mor Spirit (84 points) and Danzing Candy (60) are also assured of Derby berths. Uncle Lino (29 points) is currently 22nd on the list, but if past years are any indication, he’ll likely get in if connections are so inclined. It’s back to the drawing board for the rest of the Santa Anita Derby field – Diplodocus, Denman’s Call, Smokey Image, and Iron Rob.
As a footnote to Santa Anita Derby Day, the Desormeaux brothers earlier teamed up to win the Providencia (G3) with Decked Out. Later on the card in the Thunder Road (G3), Kent made it a graded hat trick aboard What a View.
Photo courtesy of Benoit.