Kent Desormeaux had seen this act before and knew he was about to close it with a flourish once more.
It didn’t matter that the Kentucky Derby winner was ahead of him, nor that he had to pass a front-running rival atop the horse trained by the man who effectively owns the race.
By guiding Preakness winner Exaggerator to victory Sunday in the $1-million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, Desormeaux proved he has a supreme finisher.
“It was a reminder of the Preakness. … I just tried to bide my time,” Desormeaux said after trailing by 81/2 lengths at the half-mile pole. “He really exploded at the quarter pole … rode right off my fingertips. Exceptional race horse.”
The length-and-a-half victory elevates Exaggerator to the year’s top 3-year-old, with coming dates at the $1.25-million Travers Stakes on Aug. 27 at Saratoga and automatic entry in the $5-million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 5 at Santa Anita.
Left in the mud on a track that resembled the second leg of the Triple Crown in May were Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, who finished fourth, and runner-up American Freedom.
Longshot New Jersey gelding Sunny Ridge was third.
Nyquist trainer Doug O’Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez lamented being assigned to post position No. 1, pushing them to an early speed “explosion” trying to win the 11/8-mile race in wire-to-wire fashion.
At the three-quarter pole, Nyquist was just a head behind American Freedom, but the excessive fatigue sabotaged a late run as the stretch beckoned and Exaggerator finished ahead of his rival by 21/2 lengths.
“He wasn’t himself today,” Gutierrez said. “[American Freedom] kept going. Any other day, [Nyquist] has the potential to keep that pace.”
The mud and a layoff since the Preakness might’ve contributed. Nyquist skipped the Belmont because of a fever, and O’Neill said he’ll return Nyquist to California and meet with owner J. Paul Reddam to discuss a Travers entry.
“We got outrun. With the rail, we had to go,” O’Neill said. “The rail here with an uncontested lead is a great place, but we had top horses breathing down our neck.
“We got beat today, but he’s still a champ in our mind and we’ll regroup. … We take our hat off to Exagggerator. Great horse.”
Such sentiment was not shared by Desormeaux’s Southern California rival jockey Rafael Bejarano, who watched his slight lead atop American Freedom evaporate in the stretch with a late brush that flared old tensions.
The loss was rare for American Freedom trainer Bob Baffert, who’d won five of the last six Haskells and a record eight overall.
Bejarano filed an objection over the brush Exaggerator gave in passing, but stewards rejected it.
“[Desormeaux] always does it when he comes around and over people. It’s a million-dollar, prestigious race,” Bejarano said. “If he’s going to win, win clean.
“He crossed my lane. What am I supposed to do? I had to check my horse, and I still had a lot of strength in my horse. That’s why he won.
“I’m completely disappointed.”
Desormeaux dismissed the claim.
“There was no contact. Maybe he needs glasses. He’s getting old,” Desormeaux said. “I was reeling him in, biding time from the three-eighths pole to the half-mile pole. Then [Exaggerator] just blew up like King Kong. When I turned him loose, he proved to be the man.”
Heading to the stretch, Desormeaux said he experienced a jockey’s nirvana.
“The insiders tried to pull out, the outsiders tried to pull in, and I’m like, ‘I’m doing this again. This is deja vu,’ ” Desormeaux said.