09/22/2016 10:56AM

Nyquist, Exaggerator go at it again in Pennsylvania Derby

Kim Pratt
Nyquist (right) and Exaggerator battle in the Preakness. They have split four meetings this year, with Nyquist winning the San Vicente and Kentucky Derby, and Exaggerator taking the Preakness and Haskell.

There aren’t many days when Songbird will play a supporting role, but that’s the case at Parx on Saturday, when the suburban Philadelphia track puts on arguably the best program in its history.

Songbird will be a heavy favorite to remain undefeated in the Grade 1 Cotillion (race 10). The race immediately precedes the $1.25 million Pennsylvania Derby, where Nyquist and Exaggerator will continue their long-running rivalry in a race likely to have major implications on the 3-year-old male divisional standings.

The Parx undercard includes three other stakes. First post is 12:25 p.m. Eastern, and the entire card will be streamed live on DRF.com. The Pa. Championship Stakes, Gallant Bob, Cotillion, and Pennsylvania Derby (races 8-11) are linked by a 50-cent pick four.

Doug O’Neill, the trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, acknowledged this week that following losses in the Preakness and Haskell Invitational, Nyquist needs to win the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby to remain alive for year-end championship honors.

:: PENNSYLVANIA DERBY: Get PPs, watch Saturday's card live

Keith Desormeaux conditions Preakness and Haskell winner Exaggerator, and he believes his colt has a leg up on the 3-year-old title but realizes he will have to rebound from his 11th-place finish in the Travers.

“I’m ahead of Nyquist, and if I beat him Saturday, it’s over,” Desormeaux said. “Exaggerator has won three Grade 1’s this year, and the last two heads-up with Nyquist.”

The pair have met four times this season and six times overall. This year, Nyquist won the San Vicente Stakes and Kentucky Derby, with Exaggerator second each time. More recently, Nyquist finished third in the Preakness and fourth in the Haskell.

Nyquist got hooked up in the pace of both of those races, but O’Neill said the plan Saturday is to take him back in the 1 1/8-mile Pennsylvania Derby.

“The only way we’re going to find ourselves on the lead is if they just hand it to us,” O’Neill said. “It’s a really competitive field, with some fast horses in there, so I envision seeing more of a race like the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. We’re going to let the race unfold and have a target.”

Nyquist rallied from eighth to win last year’s BC Juvenile en route to being named 2-year-old champion male.

If jockey Mario Gutierrez can settle Nyquist early, there should be plenty of pace in the 12-horse field to set him up. Summer Revolution and Cupid are fast, and Awesome Slew and Hit It Once More also have good speed.

Bob Baffert said he did not plan to alter Cupid’s style, which has resulted in back-to-back Grade 2 wins in the West Virginia Derby and Indiana Derby.

“We’re not taking back; we’ve got to go,” Baffert said. “He’s taking on the big boys now, but I think he’ll run a nice race.”

As part of the Pennsylvania Derby bonus system, O’Neill and owner Paul Reddam each will receive $50,000 for starting Nyquist in the race because he won the Kentucky Derby. Desormeaux and Big Chief Racing and partners will receive $100,000 each for their Preakness and Haskell victories with Exaggerator.

Pennsylvania Derby, Race 11

Key Contenders

Nyquist, by Uncle Mo

Last 3 Beyers: 95-96-103

◗ O’Neill said Nyquist has thrived in the quiet confines of San Luis Rey Downs since the July 31 Haskell. He has had four one-mile works, including a 1:38.20 move last Saturday.

“We gave him a good gallop into the work, and then he just kind of went in 12 and change all the way around,” O’Neill said. “I timed his last three-eighths in 36 and change, and I got him galloping out in 1:52. It was a very impressive breeze.”

Exaggerator, by Curlin

Last 3 Beyers: 79-101-83

◗ Many believe Exaggerator can produce a top effort only over a wet track, but Desormeaux does not abide by that reasoning.

“The only bad races he’s run are the two in New York – the Belmont and the Travers,” he said. “To me, the similarities between those two races are the deep tracks. He had less-than-stellar works in New York. He struggled over that surface at Saratoga. I’ve seen great races out of this horse, and that’s the only thing I can pin it on.”

◗ Desormeaux said he thought Exaggerator’s five-furlong workout in 1:00.20 at Churchill Downs last Saturday was better than his work there prior to the Derby.

Gun Runner, by Candy Ride

Last 3 Beyers: 102-92-99

◗ He finished third in the Travers behind 13 1/2-length winner Arrogate, who does not trail Nyquist and Exaggerator by very much in the division.

◗ An expected quick pace could set up a late move by Gun Runner.

“I thought he ran solid in the Travers,” said trainer Steve Asmussen. “Obviously, we all witnessed a crazy-good performance. He came out of it good and has trained nicely.”

Cupid, by Tapit

Last 3 Beyers: 95-94-85

◗ If others choose not to go for the lead, he is the likely major speed, which would make him very dangerous.

“He likes the mile and an eighth,” Baffert said.

Connect, by Curlin

Last 3 Beyers: 93-101-94

◗ He never reached contention and finished sixth in the Travers after winning the Curlin Stakes.

“The horse was disappointing in the Travers,” said trainer Chad Brown. “He scoped with a lung issue, cleaned up since, and has been scoping clean going into this race. Hopefully, he’s able to regain his best form and run back to his best numbers.”

Awesome Slew, by Awesome Again

Last 3 Beyers: 95-53-91

◗ Ran a breakout race to win the Smarty Jones Stakes at Parx on Sept. 5 from post 14. He went to the lead that day but has the ability to track the pace.

– additional reportingby David Grening