It’s his fourth Grade I stakes in two months, and Preakness winner Exaggerator is 9-5 on the morning line for Saturday’s Belmont Stakes. Clearly the horse to beat, but is he the horse to bet? Not if you yearn for bragging rights, but as former Newsday colleague John Pricci likes to say, “Better a short price than a long face.”
In this century, the mantra is “Fresh horses win the Belmont.’’ Before American Pharoah swept the Triple Crown last year, all of the last nine Belmont winners, and 12 of the previous 14, skipped the Preakness. Among Exaggerator’s 12 challengers, only Cherry Wine and Lani chased him at Pimlico. Of the five Derby also-rans with five weeks’ rest, only the maiden Trojan Nation is an automatic throwout.
So you may be asking why, Mr. Alleged Expert, are you picking Exaggerator? How come you’re not looking for value?
Well, “value” is a relative concept, and a hope bet on a 15-1 shot is nothing but a stab. Since 1981, I’ve made hundreds of them, and very few paid off. I can’t find a compelling reason to go against Exaggerator. There are many nice prices I’ll be chasing on an outstanding card, but not in the big race.
Logic can be a pathetic defense mechanism amid racing’s chaos, but sometimes using your head makes sense. Exaggerator is the Belmont’s classiest horse, with two Grade I wins, earnings of $2.97 million and a terrific distance pedigree. His sire, two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, ran second by a head in the 2007 Belmont, and he loved Belmont Park, winning its Jockey Club Gold Cup twice. Exaggerator appeared to like Big Sandy’s deep surface in his 5-furlong workout Tuesday.
Besides remarkable consistency — 5-for-11, three seconds — the rangy bay colt is versatile. Don’t believe the conventional “wisdom” that he needs to come from last on a sloppy track to excel. The hot fractions in the Santa Anita Derby and Preakness aided him far more than the rain did. He’s also quick enough to track the pace on a fast track.
Not only has Exaggerator never run a bad one, but he also seems to have plenty of energy left. After the Derby and Preakness, many horses are drained, but Exaggerator looks like an exception. “He’s very sound, very fresh, and he seems very confident,” trainer Keith Desormeaux said. “He should be sitting on a huge race.”
I agree, and if he isn’t, I have no idea who will beat him. It’s been 10 years since a deep closer, Jazil, won the Belmont, and he beat a very weak field. Last-to-first types Creator, Suddenbreakingnews, Brody’s Cause, Cherry Wine and Lani won’t get the fast pace they need, and none has proven he’s in Exaggerator’s league. If he’s himself, they won’t catch him.
I expect Kent Desormeaux to place Exaggerator in fourth behind Creator’s rabbit, Gettysburg, with Todd Pletcher’s quick pair of Stradivari and Destin second and third.
“They’ll slow the pace down, and we’ll be bunched up,” said Desormeaux, who’s 1-for-9 in the Belmont. “It’s a matter of trip. The 1 1⁄2 miles is what makes the Belmont so mysterious, because no one knows if a horse can go the extra quarter of a mile.”
When Desormeaux pushes the button on the far turn, he’ll pass the leaders and get first run on the closers. “It’s a stayers’ race,” he said, “but you’re not going to pass too many horses in the lane.”
I see Destin and Stradivari lasting for second and third, respectively, with long-winded Lani passing tired horses and clunking up for fourth. If I can get $5.80 on Exaggerator, I won’t feel cheated. Neither should you.