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

Tiger Roll wins Grand National in photo finish

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AINTREE, England — Tiger Roll won the Grand National Steeplechase in a photo finish over Pleasant Company as Irish horses dominated the world’s most famous steeplechase at Aintree on Saturday.

A 4 1/2-mile (6,400-meter) race was won by a matter of inches in the closest finish to the Grand National since 2012, when Neptune Collonges won by a nose.

Tiger Roll, a 10-1 shot, was leading by as much as 10 lengths in the long run to the line, but only just held off the fast-finishing Pleasant Company (25-1) to win a first prize of 500,000 pounds ($710,000).

“I did have a big fear,” said jockey Davy Russell, who won the race for the first time at his 14th attempt. “It would have been heartbreaking.”

The first four horses home in the National were from Ireland, including Bless The Wings (40-1) and Anibale Fly (10-1).

It was the second National victory for both trainer Gordon Elliott, who also won with Silver Birch in 2007, and owner Michael O’Leary, who had 2016 winner Rule The World. O’Leary is chief executive of budget airline Ryanair.

“We bought the horse as a pint-sized hurdler,” O’Leary said, “but he’s got a heart of a lion.”

Russell grew up dreaming of winning the National. As a child, he erected Aintree-style fences in his garden and pretended to ride a horse over them.

“I’ve won this race thousands of times (in my head),” Russell said. “But not like this.”

David Mullins, the jockey of Pleasant Company, said he thought he was well-beaten after jumping the next-to-last fence.

“Davy was going so much better than me,” Mullins said.

That seemed to be the case as the horses made it past the elbow in the run to the line, but Pleasant Company closed in as Tiger Roll faded. It was too close to call as they crossed the line and the 171st edition of the race required a photo finish to separate them.

Total Recall went off as the 7-1 favorite but fell.

 

Baffert: McKinzie won’t run in Santa Anita Derby

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ARCADIA, Calif. (AP) McKinzie will miss the Santa Anita Derby on April 7 because of an unspecified problem.

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert confirmed the colt won’t run in the West Coast’s major prep for the Kentucky Derby due to an issue in one of his hind legs. X-rays and scans haven’t confirmed what it is.

Baffert said Saturday in Dubai that McKinzie is “definitely out,” according to multiple media reports. He says he’s being “very cautious.”

The colt edged Bolt d’Oro in the San Felipe Stakes on March 10, but was disqualified and placed second for interference in the stretch.

McKinzie was 10th on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 40 points for owners Karl Watson, Mike Pegram and Paul Weitman. The colt won the Los Alamitos CashCall Futurity on Dec. 9 and the Sham Stakes on Jan. 6.

Baffert was in the Middle East to saddle West Coast and Mubtaahij to second- and third-place finishes in the $10 million Dubai World Cup.