For Exaggerator, no time like the present

ELMONT, N.Y. – Keith Desormeaux stood alone in the box seats on the second floor at Belmont Park on Thursday morning, watching a pair of unraced 2-year-olds whom he trains work from the gate

“Future stars,” he said.

And so it is with racing, always looking forward.

A year ago at this time, American Pharoah was preparing for his run to glory in the Belmont Stakes. As it turned out, the day before American Pharoah won the Belmont to become the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, Exaggerator made the first start of his career at Santa Anita. At the time, he was a future star.

Exaggerator, second in the Kentucky Derby, comes off a win in the Preakness Stakes and on Saturday will try to add another Triple Crown race win to his résumé when he starts as the strong favorite against 12 other 3-year-olds in the 148th Belmont Stakes.

“Three Grade 1 races in five weeks is not normal, but he’s handled it like a piece of cake,” Desormeaux said.

While the Belmont can stand on its own as an American classic, there is no question that without a Triple Crown on the line, there is far less drama. The madding crowds the last two years that followed California Chrome and American Pharoah – and their connections – to and from the track every morning are largely gone. The trainer of the Belmont favorite watching works by himself at 9 a.m. two days before the race is testament to the stark difference.

Yet the Saturday card still will be one of the best all year. The decision by the New York Racing Association in 2014 to stack numerous Grade 1 races on the Belmont card – turning it into a Breeders’ Cup-style program – is overshadowed with a Triple Crown on the line. This year, the decision will reap huge rewards. It is a must-see day of racing, with 10 stakes, six of them Grade 1, four of them worth at least $1 million.

“We’re still going to have a great race and a great card,” said Dale Romans, who will run both Brody’s Cause and Cherry Wine in the Belmont. “It’s a mini-Breeders’ Cup. Race fans have a lot to look forward to.”

Exaggerator is 3-5 on the line of Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form’s national handicapper, and 9-5 on the track morning line set by NYRA’s Eric Donovan. If Exaggerator is less than even-money, he will be the first Belmont favorite whose odds were that low in a non-Triple Crown bid since Bold Forbes in 1976.

Of the 20 who started this Triple Crown journey five weeks ago, only Exaggerator and Lani will run in all three legs.

In both the Derby and Preakness, Exaggerator closed into a hot pace. The fractions in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont will not be as fast, but with Gettysburg in the race to act as pacemaker for WinStar interests Exaggerator and Creator, they should be fast enough to spread the field. Regardless, all eyes figure to be on Exaggerator, and his rider, Kent Desormeaux, welcomes the attention, especially from other jockeys.

“Everybody is going to consider where I am,” he said. “I hope they take themselves out of their comfort level because Exaggerator will be wherever he’s comfortable.”

Kent Desormeaux is riding on a major card for the first time since announcing last weekend that he was undergoing treatment for alcohol use. It’s obvious that his brother Keith is happy with that development.

“Clean living,” Keith Desormeaux said as he wrapped his arm around Kent following a press conference earlier in the week.

Exaggerator merely walked the shed row on Thursday morning, then was to school in the paddock later in the day.

Of the 12 horses challenging Exaggerator, five – Brody’s Cause, Creator, Destin, Suddenbreakingnews, and Trojan Nation – ran in the Derby and then skipped the Preakness to aim for the Belmont.

Cherry Wine and Stradivari did not run in the Derby but are seeking to improve upon their respective second- and fourth-place finishes in the Preakness.

“Cherry Wine had his rest before the Preakness, so the turnaround is not as hard as if he went Derby-Preakness-Belmont,” Romans said.

Stradivari, like Destin, is trained by Todd Pletcher, who has won the Belmont twice in the last nine years. John Velazquez has a return call.

“I thought he ran a credible race in the Preakness,” Pletcher said. “It was his first stakes, outside post, sloppy track. When the slop hit him, he did the opposite of what horses usually do. He got aggressive and fought with Johnny, which compromised him a little. With that experience under his belt, hopefully he’ll be better prepared for this race.”

Governor Malibu did not run in the Derby or Preakness and is coming off a second-place finish in the Peter Pan, the same race trainer Christophe Clement used as a prep before winning the Belmont two years ago with Tonalist. Joel Rosario, who rode Tonalist, has the mount.

Governor Malibu worked a half-mile on Thursday morning that DRF clocked in 52.56 seconds.

“He’s trained well, he’s working well,” Clement said. “I’m very happy to have Rosario again.”

Forever d’Oro and Seeking the Soul, both trained by Dallas Stewart and owned by Charles Fipke, are trying to go straight from a maiden win to the Belmont Stakes winner’s circle in only their fourth start.

The Belmont is race 11 on a 13-race card that begins at 11:35 a.m. Eastern. Post time for the Belmont is 6:37 p.m. The race will be shown live during a two-hour telecast on NBC that begins at 5 p.m. NBCSN will have live coverage for the two prior hours, beginning at 3 p.m.

The Grade 1 action starts early in race 3, with Kentucky Oaks winner Cathryn Sophia taking on Carina Mia and Go Maggie Go in a sensational $700,000 Acorn for 3-year-old fillies.

Stopchargingmaria, the Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner, faces Cavorting, Curalina, Forever Unbridled, and Sheer Drama in the $1 million Ogden Phipps for older females, which goes as race 5.

Queen’s Plate winner Lexie Lou is among 13 older females in race 8, the $700,000 Just a Game at one mile on turf, a race her trainer, Mark Casse, won last year with Tepin.

The $1.25 million Met Mile, race 9, also drew 13, including last year’s Belmont runner-up, Frosted, and three from Pletcher’s barn.

And the $1 million Manhattan, the race immediately preceding the Belmont, came up quite strong, with Divisidero taking on four trained by Chad Brown, including the high-class world traveler Flintshire, a new addition to Brown’s stable.

The National Weather Service forecast for Saturday is for a high of 77 degrees, with a 30 percent chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon.

Tom Franklin is a senior contributor at US Racing.
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