Belmont Stakes not the same without a Triple Crown at stake

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NEW YORK (AP) A year ago, the joint was jumpin’.

Belmont Park, where Triple Crown hopes have been dashed so many times over nearly four decades, was the center of the sports universe. American Pharoah had done it. Kentucky Derby. Preakness. And now, he had come through with a sensational victory in the Belmont Stakes to claim the first Triple Crown in 37 years. A packed house of 90,000 jubilant fans stood and roared.

“Wow! Wow, is all I can tell you,” were among the first words from winning jockey Victor Espinoza as the cheering grew louder and louder, rocking the rafters of the historic racetrack.

The wow moment of a repeat Triple Crown vanished in the Preakness, when Exaggerator defeated Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist. Now it’s time for the year-after-Pharoah Belmont next Saturday, with no Triple try, no Nyquist and certainly no sellout.

Just likely favorite Exaggerator against a field that could total 10 3-year-olds when post positions are drawn on Wednesday.

“That’s the only bad thing, and I’m a big fan, too, about beating the Derby winner in the Preakness,” Exaggerator’s trainer, Keith Desormeaux, said during a conference call this week. “You lose a lot of the mainstream media and maybe the casual fans that might turn on the TV to watch a potential Triple Crown event. I’d think we lost a few fans.”

Then again, every year can’t be Triple time because as trainer Dale Romans says, “then it wouldn’t be special and it wouldn’t get all the hype to go along with it.”

Romans, still on the mend from a car accident hours after the Derby last month, will send out Preakness runner-up Cherry Wine and Derby also-ran Brody’s Cause in a bid for his first Belmont win.

“We’ve got to have these years where we don’t have the Triple Crown on the line,” he said, “where we still have a great race and we have a great card.”

And who knows? Exaggerator, a son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, may have plenty of victories left in the tank.

After winning the Santa Anita Derby by a smashing 6 1/4 lengths over a sloppy track, he rallied from 15 lengths back to finish second in the Derby. Two weeks later, he ended a personal 0-4 record against undefeated Nyquist with a 3 1/2-length win in the Preakness, also in the slop. He’s won five of 11, with three second-place finishes and earnings of nearly $3 million.

Among Exaggerator’s rivals in the Belmont, Cherry Wine and Derby also-rans including Suddenbreakingnews, Brody’s Cause, Creator and Lani, are closers as well. That could make for a dramatic finish over the longest distance horses are likely to ever run.

“Nobody’s going to tower over the field because the mile-and-a-half is the question,” Romans said, “It’s something no one’s done yet. He should do it with his pedigree, but I don’t think he towers over the field.”

There’s also Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux, Keith’s older brother, who has ridden in some of the most memorable Belmonts in the 148-year history of the race. In 1998, he was aboard Real Quiet and was beaten by a nose by Victory Gallop to spoil a Triple try; and in 2008, he surprisingly pulled up Big Brown around the final turn to end another Triple attempt.

No matter how many fans show up on Saturday, though, the “Test of the Champion” usually comes through with a race to remember. For his part, Keith Desormeaux is enjoying the most rewarding time in his 28 years as a trainer with the best horse he’s ever had.

“I am so close to the situation, but it sure seems like Exaggerator has jazzed up some people,” the 43-year-old trainer said. “Maybe they like the name. Or they like his running style, or they like the distance of his wins. Maybe they like this brother-brother thing.

“Hopefully we can get some fans that are not every day fans to come in and watch us compete. And hopefully we could provide them with a good show.”

For the past two years, the New York Racing Association stages a three-day racing festival from Thursday-Saturday, with on-track entertainment, food truck courts and plenty of first-class racing. The Belmont undercard, for example, includes five additional Grade 1s – the Metropolitan Mile, the Acorn, the Manhattan, the Ogden Phipps and the Just a Game. After the races, the band Daughtry will perform.

“We knew we weren’t going to have a Triple Crown every year,” said NYRA President Chris Kay. “That’s why we put in so many Grade 1 races on the card, so this is the place to be whether there’s a Triple Crown or not.”

Romans is impressed.

“NYRA has a done a special job of putting the card together,” he said. “This whole three days is like a mini-Breeders’ Cup, and the race fan is going to have a lot to look forward to.”

Follow Richard Rosenblatt on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/rosenblattap

Wood Memorial boosts purse to attract top horses

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NEW YORK — The Wood Memorial purse could increase to $1 million as part of a bonus created to entice the top 3-year-olds to run in the Kentucky Derby prep on April 7.

New York Racing Association officials said Saturday that the presence of any horse in the field with a previous Grade 1 or Group 1 victory would increase the purse from $750,000 to $1 million if the qualifying horse starts. In that case, the winner would receive $590,000, the runner-up would earn $190,000 and third would be worth $90,000.

The Wood is run at 1 1/8 miles at Aqueduct. The race is part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby prep series that awards 100 points to the winner, 40 to second, 20 to third and 10 to fourth. The top 20 horses on the leaderboard earn starting spots in the Derby on May 5.

Jack Van Berg dies at 81

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Jack Van Berg, a Hall of Fame trainer who oversaw Alysheba to victories in the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, died Wednesday. He was 81.

He died in a Little Rock, Arkansas, hospital, according to a spokeswoman for Oaklawn Park, where Van Berg had relocated his training base after leaving Southern California in 2013. No cause was given.

Van Berg ranks fourth all-time among trainers in North America, with 6,523 victories from 41,164 starts, according to Equibase. He had career purse earnings of $85,925,482.

In the Derby, Alysheba and jockey Chris McCarron were nearly knocked down at the top of the stretch by Bet Twice. Alysheba recovered and won despite having just one career victory before the Run for the Roses. Alysheba won the Preakness to set up a try for the Triple Crown but finished fourth in the Belmont.

As a 4-year-old, Alysheba won the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic and went on to earn the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year.

Van Berg saddled Gate Dancer to victory in the 1984 Preakness. That same year, he earned the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer.

Van Berg was elected to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1985. His father, trainer Marion Van Berg, already was there, having entered in 1970.

From 1959-77, Van Berg was the leading trainer at Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1976, he won a record 496 races and was the nation’s leading trainer, with $2,976,196 in purse earnings.

In 1987, Van Berg became the first trainer to win 5,000 races when he saddle Art’s Chandelle to victory at Arlington Park outside Chicago.

He trained in Southern California for 41 years until moving to Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Arkansas, after Hollywood Park closed in December 2013. Van Berg blamed the cities of Inglewood and Los Angeles and the state of California for the track’s closure.

“I just think it’s a pathetic thing,” he said at the time. “It’s ridiculous to let something like this that so many people love and thrive on close. They did everything they could to kill racing. I’ve had enough. I don’t like California racing anymore. I don’t like the way they run it and what they do.”

Van Berg mentored Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who began as an assistant to him.

Born June 7, 1936, in Columbus, Nebraska, John Charles Van Berg began training for his father in the 1960s. The elder Van Berg trained nearly 1,500 winners but was more successful as an owner, winning 4,691 races and $13,936,965. He was the first inductee of the Nebraska Racing Hall of Fame, and his son followed him.