This year’s thrilling Triple Crown series, while absent a sweep of the three races like a year ago, saw a champion wear the roses, two brothers team up to wear the black-eyed susans and a celebrity chef buy into a runner just in time for his new charge to earn the blanket of carnations.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t a storybook ending for champion Nyquist, who got sick after suffering his first career defeat his in the second jewel before heading home to California. Nor for Exxagerator, who finally turned the tables on his chief rival in Baltimore only to falter over Belmont Park’s big sandy track. But the series did end brilliantly for one runner, who boats a Hall of Fame-bound trainer emerging from a dark period both personally and professionally, a famous owner who just wanted to participate in a race — any race — on the biggest day in racing in his home state, and a young jockey on the verge of reaching the same level as his childhood idols.
So, under a cloudy New York sky and with the heavens finally releasing their pent-up showers as the field broke from the gate, WinStar Farm and Bobby Flay’s Creator earned the biggest victory of his career by a hard-fought nose in the 148th running of the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes (GI). A minority interest in the Steve Asmussen-trained colt was purchased by Flay from owners WinStar Farm earlier in the week simply because, as a native New Yorker, Flay wanted a runner on Belmont Day — and if it was in the marquee race, all the better.
And the celebrity chef couldn’t have carved out a better recipe for the win for if he’d tried.
After breaking from the far outside in the 13-runner field, Creator was taken back and made his way to the rail before rounding the clubhouse turn, content to be rated near the back of the pack in the early going by new jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. On the fence for more than a mile while stable mate Gettysburg set all the pace through splits of :24.09, :48.48 and 1:13.28, Ortiz asked Creator to go shortly after the mile went in 1:37.96… and go he did, leaving the comfortable ground-saving position off the rail to weave between tiring rivals in front of them around the far bend.
Down the lane, Creator brushed briefly with a rival to his inside before squeezing through and gaining a clear run at the last runner in front of him — Destin — who he wore down in the final few jumps to snatch the victory. Destin was in front to log the 1 1/4-mile split in 2:03.06 before Creator completed the 1 1/2-mile marathon distance in 2:28.51 over a fast track.
“He was calm and I just waited for somewhere to go. When he got clear, he started running,” Ortiz said. “Thank you for the owners for giving me the opportunity. Steve Asmussen did a great job and, thanks to him, I’m here today. It’s an amazing feeling. It’s very important to me. Thanks to everyone who helped me.”
Despite winning the Arkansas Derby (GI), Creator was the public’s 16-1 seventh choice in the field of 13, likely thanks to his troubled 13th-place finish in the Derby, and rewarded his backers with payouts of $34.80, $14.60 and $9.40.
Destin, who was more than 8-1 when he left the gate, was good for $9.40 and $6.20, while Lani, who finally put it all together, paid $6.60 to show. The exacta was worth $269 while the rare all-gray-horse trifecta returned $2,751.
Governor Malibu, Stradivari, Brody’s Cause, Cherry Wine, Gettysburg, Suddenbreakingnews, Trojan Nation, Exaggerator, Seeking the Soul and Forever d’Oro completed the order of finish.
Asmussen, who will be inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame class at Saratoga in August, shared his joy over winning the race he’d come a nose shy of capturing in 2007 with his eventual Horse of the Year Curlin.
“It’s the best feeling right now,” Asmussen said. “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. Obviously want to say thanks for the opportunity with a horse like him that can prove he’s good enough to win the Belmont Stakes.”
”Curlin didn’t ever do anything but make us happy. Being a victor in the Belmont Stakes will look good on that plaque.”
Only Exaggerator and Lani made all three of this year’s Triple Crown race starting gates and while the Japanese connections were finally pleased we saw the real Lani, the Desormeaux camp remained proud of their charge despite the loss. One will head back to the Far East after leaving quarantine at Belmont Park while the other will head back to his home base of California in the coming days to prepare for the summer classics at Saratoga.
Creator will also likely be at Saratoga, Asmussen said, with the long-term focus set on the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita in November.