04/10/2016 1:55PM

Road to the Derby: Santa Anita Derby

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Shigeki Kikkawa
Exaggerator proved he could beat quality horses going two turns in the Santa Anita Derby.

Grade 1, $1,000,690 Santa Anita Derby, 1 1/8 miles, Santa Anita, April 9, 2016

 (100 Derby qualifying points for a win, 40 for second, 20 for third, 10 for fourth)

 Winner: Exaggerator, by Curlin

 Trainer: Keith Desormeaux

 Jockey: Kent Desormeaux

 Owner: Big Chief Racing LLC, Head of Plains Partners LLC, Rocker O Ranch LLC

 Beyer Speed Figure: 103

 I was quite bullish on EXAGGERATOR heading into the San Felipe, but that race left me confused, as he flattened out when finishing third behind DANZING CANDY and MOR SPIRIT. But the performance I expected that day was on display in the Santa Anita Derby, as Exaggerator took advantage of a hot pace to rally for a runaway victory over Mor Spirit, Danzing Candy, and five others while earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 103. That is the highest fig earned in any two-turn Derby prep so far, and there are only two remaining – the Arkansas Derby and Lexington Stakes, both April 16.

 The track this day was extremely sloppy on top, with a good seal on the bottom, and helped produce the wicked fractions (22.15 seconds, 45.24, 1:10.12) carved out by Danzing Candy. I watched the race from ground level in the winner’s circle, and the amount of water and mud being kicked up going into the first turn was startling to see up close. I don’t know how a rider in the middle of the pack could even see where he was going under those conditions. Watching from the stands, or on TV, doesn’t do it justice.

 Exaggerator came away from the gate a bit awkwardly and was initially on his wrong lead, but switched over after a sixteenth of a mile and settled well back of the early leaders and, significantly, away from that wall of water that got kicked up around the first turn. He began an extended run with about a half-mile to go while inside, was tipped out with three furlongs to go, took off after the leaders while three paths wide, charged to the front entering the lane, and drew away.

 The race shape certainly aided his cause, but he showed he could win going two turns against top-class company, and I liked how he made an extended run and kept on going. This was a big step forward. But he is 0 for 4 in head-to-head meetings against the current Derby favorite, Nyquist.

 Mor Spirit, who finished second, broke sharply and went into the first turn in fourth, saving ground along the rail, while surprisingly in front of the stretch-out sprinters DENMAN’S CALL and  IRON ROB. He raced in the clear in fourth down the backstretch, got through inside on the far turn, had Exaggerator roar past him at the quarter pole, was angled off the rail in upper stretch and made steady progress to get up for second. He’s a big horse who probably didn’t like the slick conditions, but he has yet to show he can accelerate in an instant. With his style, that could be detrimental in a bulky Kentucky Derby field.

 UNCLE LINO, who finished third, was a bit antsy in the gate prior to the start and broke inward leaving the gate, then raced to the first turn on his wrong lead. He got over from his outside post and was second, to Danzing Candy, heading into the first turn, and stayed in that spot down the backstretch. He closed the gap on Danzing Candy heading into the far turn, was asked aggressively to keep up with three furlongs to go, finally got up to Danzing Candy a quarter-mile out, could not go with Exaggerator in upper stretch, took until inside the furlong pole to switch to his proper lead, and was passed late by Mor Spirit. The race shape did him no favors, but he showed some grit by finishing third.

 Danzing Candy faded to fourth after setting a hot early pace. He reared up in the gate after being loaded, an indication his gate troubles are not behind him, but he broke well enough and then was sent along by Mike Smith to make the top. He rolled along on the lead to the three-furlong pole, turned back the initial bid from Uncle Lino, started to run out of steam just inside the quarter pole, stayed on his wrong lead until inside the furlong pole, and gave way.

 DIPLODOCUS, who finished fifth, had no early speed, per usual, and trailed into the first turn. He followed Exaggerator down the backstretch, was gradually angled off the rail around the far turn and split Denman’s Call and SMOKEY IMAGE while about four paths wide in upper stretch and never threatened.

 Denman’s Call, who was sixth, was sent a bit leaving the gate but was surprisingly outrun and went into the first turn in sixth, then tried to lug out a bit when hit by a wall of water and slop. He was asked hard with three furlongs to go, drifted a bit off the rail, but never mounted any serious challenge. He’s likely a sprinter, but he’s better than that. He looked uncomfortable from the get-go.

 Smokey Image, who was seventh, broke half a step slow, went into the first turn forwardly placed while about three paths wide while trying to lug out, moved outside Uncle Lino to vie for second midway down the backstretch, started to back up readily beginning with three furlongs to go, drifted about five paths wide entering the lane and was sympathetically not preserved with from that point.

 Iron Rob, who finished last of eight, bobbled a bit at the start, raced on his wrong lead until reaching the wire the first time, drifted out entering the first turn while resenting the spray of muddy water, came off the bridle with more than a half-mile go to and was allowed to coast home. He was never happy.