Blocked behind a wall of horses with a quarter-mile to run, WinStar Farm and Bobby Flay’s Creator weaved his way through traffic and used the length of the stretch to reel in Destin and win the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets by a nose Saturday at Belmont Park.
The 148th running of the “Test of the Champion,” at 1 ½ miles the last and longest leg of racing’s Triple Crown, provided a climactic finish to the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival, a three-day celebration that served up 19 stakes, 11 of them graded including six Grade 1 events, worth $9.6 million in purses.
A 3-year-old gray or roan son of Tapit, Grade 1 Arkansas Derby winner Creator became the first horse to win the Belmont Stakes from post position 13. Sent off at odds of 16-1, he hit the wire in 2:28.51 over a fast main track and returned $34.80 on a $2 win bet.
Destin was a stubborn second, 1 ½ lengths ahead of late-running Japanese import Lani. Grade 1 Preakness winner Exaggerator, the 7-5 favorite in a field of 13 3-year-olds, was in contention for a mile and a quarter before fading to finish 11th, beaten 14 lengths.
It was the first Belmont Stakes victory for both jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. and trainer Steve Asmussen. Set to be inducted in the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs this summer, Asmussen finished second by a head with two-time Horse of the Year Curlin to filly Rags to Riches in an historic 2007 Belmont.
“Curlin didn’t ever do anything but make us happy. Being a victor in the Belmont Stakes will look good on that plaque,” Asmussen said. “I was glad to see them put that number up. They came to the wire together. Irad gave him a dream trip, and the horse ran super.”
The margin of victory matched the smallest in Belmont history reached three times prior, most recently in 1998 when Victory Gallop spoiled Real Quiet’s bid at the Triple Crown. Victory Gallop was trained by Elliott Walden, now president, CEO and racing manager of WinStar Farm.
“He was coming; I just had nowhere to go. When he got clear, he started running. The trainer told me he’s going to love the mile and a half and he was right,” Ortiz said. “It’s a great feeling. It’s very, very important for me and I’m very happy.”
Also owned by WinStar and moved to Asmussen’s barn during Belmont week to ensure a solid pace, Gettysburg broke from post 6 and led the field through an opening quarter-mile in 24.09 seconds, a half in 48.48 and six furlongs in 1:13.38. He was tracked to his outside by Destin and 55-1 long shot Seeking the Soul and Exaggerator in the clear while racing four wide.
Gettysburg was still in front after running a mile in 1:37.96 before dropping back as Destin inherited the lead, straightening for home with a 1 ½-length advantage. Exaggerator loomed a threat with open track in front of him on the outside, while Creator was bottled up behind horses waiting for room.
Destin began to separate from the field before Creator was able to shake free, splitting horses in mid-stretch and responding under Ortiz’s urging to get his nose down on the wire.
“I thought Irad gave him a perfect trip. I thought he saved yards and won by inches. He made the difference,” Asmussen said. “He saved a lot of ground going into the first turn. Gettysburg did his job. It was a great call by Elliott there. Forty-eight and four for a half allowed Creator to show who he is. I thought there was quite a bit of traffic around the quarter pole; Irad was beautifully patient. He went through a lot of traffic very smooth. I’m very proud of Creator; he stayed focused through the traffic and did all he could to get up and win a great race.”
It was the third win from 10 career starts for Creator, who skipped the Preakness after finishing 13th following a nightmarish trip in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby May 7. The $800,000 winner’s share of the purse pushed his bankroll to $1,568,320.
“It’s the best feeling right now. The great thing about racing; you can have a bad day, a bad week, a bad month. They don’t put you behind the gates; they line you up even and give you a chance to prove yourself,” Asmussen said. “Obviously I want to say thanks for the opportunity with a horse like him that can prove he’s good enough to win the Belmont Stakes.”
Grade 2 Peter Pan runner-up Governor Malibu was fourth, followed by Destin’s Todd Pletcher-trained stablemate Stradivari.
“[Destin] ran a great race. Tough beat,” said Pletcher, a two-time Belmont winner. “[Stradivari] looked like he got to the top of the stretch and flattened out. He just didn’t stay the mile and a half.”
Multiple Grade 1 winner Brody’s Cause, Preakness runner-up Cherry Wine, Gettysburg, Suddenbreakingnews, Trojan Nation, Exaggerator, Seeking the Soul and Forever d’Oro completed the order of finish.
Exaggerator was aiming to become the first horse since Hall of Famer Nashua in 1955 to finish second in the Kentucky Derby and go on to win the Preakness and Belmont.
Previously, 11 horses won the Preakness and Belmont after falling short in the Derby, the last being Afleet Alex in 2005. In all, 18 horses have swept the final two-thirds of the Triple Crown, including seven that did not run in the Derby.
“I am surprisingly not as [disappointed] as you think. It was a heck of an accomplishment to win the Preakness, win a classic. Creator is a good son of gun. I put him in my exactas. He’s a great horse. No dishonor losing to him,” said Exaggerator’s trainer, Keith Desormeaux. “As for as the Triple Crown, this horse was as fresh as a horse can be. I might not be a Hall of Fame trainer but I know when my horse is fresh. I saw the pace so you would have expected a little bit of a fight.”
Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux, Keith’s younger brother, said he didn’t feel the same Exaggerator that handed Derby winner Nyquist his first career defeat in the Preakness three weeks earlier.
“I just know there was nothing left. The horse was empty. He came off the bridle at the four and a half. I didn’t move. I sat quiet and let him steady there, I let him cruise. When I picked him up at the quarter pole to go ahead and try to win the race, there was nothing there,” he said. “He did not quicken and he has a turn of foot. My brother and I call it; we say when I turn this guy loose he pops a wheelie he gets up so fast. And there was nothing there.”