By Jennie Rees
Owner Matt Bryan has taken on unbeaten champion Nyquist (Uncle Mo) eight times, most recently when Exaggerator (Curlin) finished second by 1 1/4 lengths in Saturday’s 142nd GI Kentucky Derby.
Exaggerator and Swipe (Birdstone), both trained by Keith Desormeaux for Bryan’s Big Chief Racing, have faced Nyquist four times apiece, losing at distances of five furlongs, 6 1/2 furlongs, seven furlongs, 1 1/16 miles and now 1 1/4 miles.
Bryan acknowledges he’s itching for yet another crack at the champ, which is expected to come in the May 21 GI Preakness S. at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course.
“Sure. Ninth time’s a charm; 10th time’s the charm,” said Bryan, whose partners in Exaggerator are Sol Kumin’s Head of Plains Partners and Cody Ortowski’s Rocker O Ranch. “We’ll just keep on knocking at him. I’ll tell you one thing, we’re not scared of him. We’re not going to dodge him.
“We’ve got the second-best horse in the country right now.”
Bryan stopped by Churchill Downs’ backside Sunday morning to see Exaggerator. He said he was at a loss for words to describe having his first Kentucky Derby starter, one where Exaggerator came up just shy of making Keith and Kent Desormeaux the first trainer-jockey brothers combination to win America’s most famous race.
“It was an amazing experience, truly nothing you could ever describe,” said the head of M.G. Bryan Equipment Co. in Grand Prairie, Texas. “Being my first time to have a horse in the Kentucky Derby and trying to make history with Keith and Kent was really, really special. But being second, we’re sure proud of that.”
While Nyquist pressed a solid early pace that slowed down every quarter-mile, Exaggerator came from more than 17 lengths back early and nine lengths back after the field turned for home. The official Equibase chart footnotes read: “EXAGGERATOR drafted back off the early pace saving ground, picked up steam into the far turn, angled out and aggressively knifed his way between foes nearing the quarter pole, swung out before being straightened into the stretch, then closed strongly to narrow the gap.”
“It was unbelievable,” Bryan said of the stretch run. “I thought we were going to get him, but we didn’t. I didn’t get to see the replays yet, but I heard he got checked in the corner a little bit, so maybe we can get him next time.
“You cannot even imagine,” he said of the experience. “For a horse-racing owner, it’s the ultimate: walking in front of 160,000, the second-largest crowd. People cheering Exaggerator on and seeing us as owners and cheering us on, was really exciting. Being in the paddock, just seeing the build up of the day. The crowd continues to grow. It’s like a great prize fight. Heck, I think we’re fighting Muhammad Ali with Nyquist. But maybe we can get him next time.”
Of course, even Muhammad Ali lost six fights.
“He did at the end,” Bryan acknowledged, a reference to The Greatest dropping three of his final four bouts. “Exaggerator is growing, still getting better, and it looks like he’s no worse after this race.
“You’ve got to have a clean trip. We come from off the pace. We can run in front, but that’s not our style and not the way Keith trains them. That being said, you just have to blessed and have a clean trip. I think if we’d had a clean trip, it would have been a little but closer, but I don’t know. Nyquist is a heck of a horse.
“We’ve had Swipe and Exaggerator run against him, and I think we’ve been second to him seven or eight times. But hey, it’s an amazing record, and we’re knocking on the door. I’m really proud of Keith and Kent and the whole team. It’s been a true blessing to be here.”