NEW YORK — Even without a Triple Crown on the line, there’s always a slice of history waiting at the finish line of the Belmont Stakes.
Where Exaggerator ends up in the record books will be determined Saturday night, when the Preakness winner takes on a dozen rivals in the 148th running of the final leg of the Triple Crown at Belmont Park.
A year ago, American Pharoah captured racing’s ultimate prize by becoming the first horse in 37 years to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
Nyquist beat Exaggerator by 11/2 lengths in the Derby last month, but the determined runner-up came back two weeks later and splashed his way to victory in the Preakness. Nyquist is skipping the Belmont following a recent fever, so Exaggerator comes into the 11/2-mile race known as the “Test of the Champion” as the favorite — a 4-5 pick as of late Friday afternoon — while leaving from the No. 11 post.
With Hall of Fame rider Kent Desormeaux aboard the 3-year-old colt trained by his brother, Keith, Exaggerator will attempt to become the 12th horse to take the Preakness and Belmont after falling short in the Derby, and the first since Afleet Alex in 2005.
With a win, Exaggerator joins a select group of Derby runners-up who went on and won the Preakness and Belmont, the last being Nashua in 1955. The others were Native Dancer (1953), Capot (1949) and Bimelech (1940).
This is all new for Keith Desormeaux, whose brother is one of the most successful riders in the game. He’s been training for more than a quarter-century. Finally, he has made it to the top, and his horse is allowing him to feel confident.
“What’s cool for me? There’s no issues with this horse,” the trainer said Friday morning after Exaggerator returned from a gallop. “He’s eating well, the energy’s there, the color is good. As far as my preparation and the expectations of what we’ve done through the horse, I really can’t ask my horse to be doing any better. He doesn’t seem to be showing the rigors of three top races in five weeks. That’s usually the number one concern, right? It looks like he’s thriving off of it, so that’s pretty cool.”
The excitement level won’t be close to what took place with American Pharoah, who became the “people’s horse” as owner Ahmed Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert shared their star with the public. When he won, the grandstand shook as a packed house of 90,000 cheered him on.
The crowd is unlikely to come close to that number, especially with a Saturday weather forecast calling for a 30 to 40 percent chance of rain, with scattered thunderstorms.
A wet track would be welcomed by the favorite. Exaggerator thrives in the slop, romping by 61/4 lengths in the Santa Anita Derby and by 31/2 lengths in the Preakness. With an outside post, look for Kent Desormeaux to try to stay clear of trouble, check the early pace and position himself accordingly.
“If I could have a dream run, he would be forwardly placed,” the jockey said, “and I would be able to dreamingly decide when to pull the trigger.”
The field has some new faces to the Triple Crown trail, as well as some rivals Exaggerator has beaten. Trainer Todd Pletcher has Stradivari (12-1), fourth in the Preakness, and Destin (15-1), sixth in the Derby.
Gettysburg, a 69-1 long shot who just broke his maiden, is a front-running colt expected to set the early pace in a field full of horses who like to race well off the lead. Stradivari could be near the lead, too.
Exaggerator has shown he’s versatile, but rallying from far back seems to be his best style. Other closers in the field include Preakness runner-up Cherry Wine (8-1, ridden by Lafayette’s Corey Lanerie), Creator (21-1), Suddenbreakingnews (the 5-1 second choice), Brody’s Cause (23-1), Lani (14-1) and Trojan Nation (64-1).
With Nyquist out of the picture, all eyes will be on Exaggerator.
“Our role has changed. I actually enjoy everybody wondering where I am,” Kent Desormeaux said. “So I hope to God all of them take their horses out of their normal, comfortable level and they all want to be around Exaggerator. He’s going to be where I’m comfortable. ... And I hope the other jockey’s aren’t listening.”
Keith Desormeaux said about 20 family and friends — son Bailey included — will be at the track and, he kidded, some “new shooters after the win in the Preakness.” But, he added, “it’s all good. The more the merrier.”
The Belmont undercard features five other Grade 1 races:
-- Kentucky Oaks winner Cathryn Sophia is the favorite in a field of six for the Acorn.
-- Frosted, last year’s Belmont runner-up, tops a 13-horse field for the Met Mile.
-- Flintshire makes his first start of the year as the top choice in the 11-horse Manhattan on the turf.
-- Curalina tops a star-studded field of seven fillies and mares in the Ogden Phipps.
-- Mrs McDougal is the top choice in a field of 13 in the Just a Game.