NEW YORK — The finish was dramatic, even without a Triple Crown on the line.
Creator found an opening in the stretch and ran down Destin in the final stride to win the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes by a nose — the closest possible margin of victory. Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. pointed to the sky in an appropriate winning salute given the horse’s name.
“Today was perfect for us by inches,” said Steve Asmussen, who will be inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame this summer at Saratoga. “Being the victor of the Belmont Stakes will look good on that plaque.”
The 50-year-old trainer has won more than 7,300 races, including the Preakness with champions Curlin in 2007 and Rachel Alexandra in 2009. He was taken off the Hall of Fame ballot last year, though, because of allegations made by PETA about the way he treated his horses. He was later cleared by racing authorities in Kentucky and New York.
The 11/2-mile “Test of the Champion” wraps up the Triple Crown a year after American Pharoah’s run to glory in becoming the first horse in 37 years to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. A different horse won each leg — Nyquist took the Derby and Exaggerator won the Preakness.
This was Creator’s day, a hot, sticky one at Belmont Park with temperatures in the mid-80s. Exaggerator, the 7-5 favorite in the field of 13, raced well back in the pack, appeared to make into contention but just didn’t have his usual finishing kick. He finished 11th.
A 3-year-old gray colt, Creator came flying down the stretch as Destin tried to hang on to the lead.
He almost made it but settled for second with Japan-based Lani a closing third.
“I’m glad to see him put that number up; they came to the wire together,” Asmussen said of the Creator-Destin showdown. “Irad gave him a dream trip. The horse ran super.”
Creator, sent off at 16-1, returned $34.80, $14.60 and $9.40. Destin, trained by Todd Pletcher, returned $9.40 and $6.20 and Lani paid $6.60. The winning time was 2 minutes, 28.51 seconds. The first three finishers were gray colts.
Governor Malibu was fourth, followed by Stradivari, Brody’s Cause, Cherry Wine, Gettysburg, Suddenbreakingnews, Trojan Nation, Exaggerator, Seeking the Soul and Forever d’Oro.
Creator was one of several closers in the field, and the race set up perfectly for him. Gettysburg was a late addition to the field. Both horses are owned by WinStar Farm, with Gettysburg a front-runner who could set the stage for a thrilling finish.
That’s exactly what happened. After setting a slowish pace, Gettysburg dropped back after a mile, and Destin took charge well into the stretch. With Ortiz urging him on, Creator stormed into contention after running near the back of the pack for his sixth win in 12 career starts. Ortiz, one of the nation’s leading riders, won his first Triple Crown race.
“He was calm and I just waited for somewhere to go,” Ortiz said. “When he got clear, he started running.”
Kent Desormeaux, the Hall of Fame rider aboard the colt, second-guessed his decision to ask Exaggerator to wait behind the pace. When he tried to make a move, the horse trained by his brother, Keith, just didn’t have it.
“I don’t know it there would have been any difference in the outcome,” Kent Desormeaux said. “When I picked him up at the quarter-pole to try and win the race, there was nothing there.”
Exaggerator and Lani were the only horses who ran in all three Triple Crown races. Lani improved each time, running ninth in the Derby and fifth in the Preakness.
“He was in very good condition, and the distance was good,” Lani’s jockey, Yutaka Take, said.
The track was a fast one all day, and the rain held off until after the finish when a downpour soaked the track and a crowd much smaller than the 90,000 that showed up for American Pharoah’s Triple Crown.
Earlier in the week, celebrity chef Bobby Flay became a co-owner of Creator along with WinStar.