The pre-race rain should have been a dead give away. With mud on the track, Exaggerator won the Haskell Invitational in a masterful performance that reminded us all why he was a Triple Crown threat. The top-three finishers from the Kentucky Derby all met in a highly anticipated race hosted by the good people at Monmouth, and the six-horse field put on a fantastic show.
Nyquist did his best to set the pace, taking the top-four horses out at the gun. He was trailed by Sunny Ridge, Awesome Slew and American Freedom who bunched up as the field hit the first turn. Gun Runner sat right in the thick while Exaggerator was a bit off the mark, trailing two lengths back as they rounded the turn. It seemed as if this was going to be Nyquist’s race from the onset.
The odds at the Haskell certainly reflected that. Nyquist was the even favorite at 1/1 while Gun Runner was a respected 3/1 third choice. American Freedom was essentially the new shooting talk of the town and slipped in at 5/1 while Awesome Slew carried long 30/1 odds.
A blazing fast half-mile of :46.62 saw American Freedom and Nyquist exchanging the lead in a back and forth battle that had the hairs on your neck standing on edge. As if that wasn’t enough, Exaggerator started to make a move as a 5/2 second choice, inching up on the lead pack that had Gun Runner in third. The Haskell was setting up to have a reckless finish.
Nyquist took charge of the race by a half-length ahead of American Freedom and owned the inside track as the field rounded the last turn in to the homestretch. But Exaggerator went ballistic on the outside showing the type of closing speed that he had displayed in the first two legs of the Triple Crown. The slop may have certainly helped as he turned a gear that no other contender seemed to have, taking the Haskell in 1:48.70 for an absolutely thrilling victory.
Exaggerator paid out $7.20, $4.00 and $3.00 as the upset winner while American Freedom clung on for second at $5.60 and $3.60 in show. Sunny Ridge was the surprise show horse at $5.00. Nyquist trailed to fourth.
The Haskell lived up to its hype, displaying a race that had fans on their feet from the first bell. While the win solidified Exaggerator’s case as a real, long-term threat, it also created many questions for his rival. Nyquist was passed a few lengths from the finish line and seemed to lose immediate interest, just as he had in the Preakness. It was a promising showing for American Freedom in the end, who had some questions of his own at the end of the race.
“When he came around me, he crossed me a couple times,” American Freedome Bejarano said of Exaggerator. “I had to change my course in the stretch and then let him run again. I’m completely disappointed. We are hoping everyone had a clean race, in such a prestigious race, and he definitely crossed my lane and I had to change my course.”
There was no review by officials and this allowed Exaggerator’s connections to celebrate. “We had a lot of confidence in the horse on this track,” said assistant trainer Julie Clark of Exaggerator. “Obviously he loves the off going and that’s great and it worked in our favor. I talked to Keith after the race and he said that it set up as he hoped and Kent brought him home.
Clark also explained that the Belmont was an aberration. “Immediately after the Belmont he was as slow to recover as I’ve seen him get. In the test barn he was gassed. But in a week, he bounced back and was 100%.He was on his toes and ready for a challenge. He’ll head back up to Saratoga and train up there. We’ll point for the Travers.”
In the meantime, Exaggerator can rest easy after a solid victory at the Haskell. Unfortunately we can’t say the same about his rival, Nyquist, who seems to be fading as the season goes on.