BALTIMORE >> We're not making this up: Exaggerator is 0 for 4 against Nyquist. His trainer, Keith Desormeaux, is 0 for 8 against the undefeated Kentucky Derby winner.
So why is the Derby runner-up trying again in Saturday's Preakness?
"We doubled-teamed him with Exaggerator and Swipe," Desormeaux said at Thursday's traditional alibi breakfast at Pimlico Race Course. "Maybe those two horses have dealt him enough blows so he can just back up a step and we can reach that goal we are trying to get to."
Swipe, a promising Derby prospect as a 2-year-old, has finished second to Nyquist four times, including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Exaggerator has narrowed his losing margin against Nyquist in each race, finishing 1 1/4 lengths back in the Derby.
A determined Desormeaux keeps trying to convince himself that Exaggerator is ready to run down Nyquist, the unbeaten 3-5 morning-line favorite in an 11-horse field. He's says his powerfully built colt needed only one day to recover from the Derby, has been "happy energetic" since and can handle any track surface.
"Along with his pedigree (a son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin), his No. 1 physical attribute is his ability to recover," he said. Exaggerator also won the Santa Anita Derby over a sloppy track — a distinct possibility for the 1 3-16-mile Preakness.
"We're not wishing for one track over another," Desormeaux said, "I prefer to have my picture taken in the sun."
Exaggerator is the 3-1 second choice, with lightly raced Stradavari — one of eight challengers who did not run in the Derby — next at 8-1.
All the chatter this week around Pimlico's stakes barn has been about Nyquist, and can he really follow up American Pharoah's Triple Crown with another one? Nyquist trainer Doug O'Neill, who won the 2012 Derby and Preakness with I'll Have Another, knows Exaggerator is the rival to fear in the Preakness.
"What they have done with Exaggerator has been brilliant," O'Neill said. "He won the Santa Anita Derby. He won the Delta Downs Jackpot. He won the Saratoga Special. He's run second a few times but he's also won some big races, and he ran a winning race in the Kentucky Derby. He just had a lot to do; you know, we kind of got a head start on him."
Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux, Keith's younger brother, figures if he can get a clean trip with Exaggerator and stay a bit closer to the pace, there's a good chance to turn the table on his nemesis. He says in the three times he's been aboard Exaggerator in losses to Nyquist, his horse did not have clear sailing — in the BC Juvenile, the San Vicente and the Derby.
On the far turn at the Derby, Exaggerator was gaining ground but Kent Desormeaux said he was slowed down by other horses and lost some momentum.
"It denied me the opportunity to challenge Nyquist. I could never catch up to him," the jockey said. "I know I would've caught up to him around the eighth pole, but I daresay I'm not sure Nyquist would've let me by."
Look for a slight change in tactics. With a smaller field than the Derby and a shorter distance to run, expect Exaggerator, breaking from the No. 5 post, to stay closer than usual to the leaders, which likely would include Nyquist.
"It's usually even more of a speed bias racetrack due to the sharp turns and shorter stretch," Kent Desormeaux said. "You seldom see horses making up tons of ground at Old Hilltop there in Maryland. So for several reasons, I'll probably adjust my situation in an attempt to win with Exaggerator."
Two times, Keith Desormeaux thought he had Nyquist nailed. The first was with Swipe in the Front Runner Stakes at Santa Anita last September.
"Swipe came through on the inside and was running as though he had him measured," he recalled. "I could tell Kent still had horse left. And Nyquist dug down the last eighth and held us at bay."
The second was with Exaggerator in the San Vicente in the 3-year-old debuts for both in February.
"I was even more confident I had him beat. I knew Exaggerator was a little better than Swipe," Desormeaux said. When the seven-furlong race started, Nyquist set a quick pace, with Exaggerator not far behind in third. "I said 'this race is in the bag' because Exaggerator was sitting right off of him just waiting to pounce. "When you set a pace like that, they usually come back to you. We hooked him. We got to his throat latch and Nyquist re-broke. That horse is a good horse. Period."
Asked if he thinks Exaggerator and Nyquist are aware of each other since they raced so many times, Keith Desormeaux replied: "If he knows anything about Nyquist, it's the rear view."