A little help gets Creator to Belmont Stakes winner’s circle

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NEW YORK — A little gamesmanship, a celebrity chef added to the mix, and a stirring finish paid huge dividends all around when Creator came through in the Belmont Stakes.

Credit the well-played hand to Creator’s owner Kenny Troutt’s WinStar Farm.

Here’s how it worked:

Preakness winner Exaggerator came into the $1.5 million Belmont as the favorite and one of many in the field who rally from well back in the pack, Creator among them. A fleet front-runner to set a fast early pace could be a huge help.

Enter Gettysburg. Also owned by WinStar, but trained by Todd Pletcher, who already had two horses in the race, Gettysburg fit the bill as a quick starter. Before he was entered, he was sent from Pletcher’s barn to Creator trainer Steve Asmussen’s.

Meanwhile, Bobby Flay smacked down some dough and became a co-owner of Creator.

As it turned out, one of the Pletcher’s two horses in the race, Destin, was on the short end of a thrilling finish. Destin had the lead well into the stretch when Gettysburg dropped back after a mile, but Creator moved closer with every stride and won by a nose, the slimmest margin possible.

“I shouldn’t even be sitting here,” Flay said at the post-race news conference. “The only thing I did … I certainly was cheering the loudest in the entire racetrack, and maybe I gave that last little head bob, but that’s about it.”

Some extra candy and carrots go to Gettysburg, too.

“He needs to be rewarded, and pampered a little bit,” Asmussen said Sunday morning at Belmont Park. “He was a valiant horse on the lead. He showed (in the Arkansas Derby) that he’s not a patsy by any means, that it will take a lot to wear him down. He carried them a long ways yesterday.”

Creator earned $800,000 for his owners to boost his bankroll to more than $1.5 million with his third victory in 10 career starts. It was the first Belmont win for Asmussen and jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr.

“I watched the replay multiple times. I thought it was a great race,” said Asmussen, who also won the Preakness twice, with Curlin and Rachel Alexandra. “I thought Irad did a masterful job with him and with every decision he made. I really thought the horse tried to win late. He just really, really laid out there and dug in, and I personally feel very fortunate for his effort.”

This is perhaps the most rewarding year of Asmussen’s career. The 50-year-old trainer will be inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame at Saratoga in August, and his wife, Julie, recently received news that her cancer has gone into remission.

“To be blessed enough to have the big victory and to be able celebrate and share that with your family means everything,” he said. “Racing for me is a family affair. I grew up in my parents’ barn and they’re still a huge part of it. … To be able to celebrate and share this win with my family is very, very special.”

Exaggerator, meanwhile, finished 11th in the field of 13 in the final leg of the Triple Crown. He, too, raced well behind the leaders, but when he tried to move into contention around the turn, he just didn’t have the same finishing kick he displayed in winning the Santa Anita Derby and Preakness.

“He’s good. Walked him myself about 6:30 this morning, and he’s his same vibrant self,” trainer Keith Desormeaux said. “He’s bright-eyed, ate up last night and maybe he’s a little more subdued than usual, but that stands to reason. He still has that confident look in his eyes, so we’re good.”

The trainer said he thinks Exaggerator didn’t like the deep, sandy track. He pointed out that after wins at Santa Anita and Pimlico, the colt had already cooled down by the time he returned to the winner’s circle.

This time, “before he got back to take the saddle off, he panted and gasped for air and looked a little fatigued for 45 minutes after the race,” Desormeaux said. “I can guarantee the (Triple Crown) races didn’t take a toll, but he struggled with the track. He gave us his life to win and it got to him. I’m settling on he didn’t get a hold of the track.”

For the fifth time in the past eight years, a different horse won each of the Triple Crown races. Nyquist won the Kentucky Derby, ran third in the Preakness and did not run in Saturday’s Belmont.

With no Triple Crown on the line after American Pharoah swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont last year, the announced crowd was 60,114. Last year, the attendance was capped at 90,000.

And now, it’s on to the summer season, with a possible meeting between Creator and Exaggerator in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga.

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.