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.

Second horse in 4 days dies at Santa Anita

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LOS ANGELES (AP) Santa Anita had its second horse death in four days when a gelding pulled up during a race Sunday and was euthanized a day later.

Twenty-five horses have now died in racing or training at the Southern California track since Dec. 26.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Spectacular Music was running in a six-furlong maiden claiming race when the jockey pulled the horse up on the backstretch shortly after leaving the gate.

The horse was taken off the course with a pelvis injury and the decision to euthanize him was made Monday morning.

On Friday, a 3-year-old horse broke down with a shoulder injury while galloping and was euthanized at the track.

Santa Anita is scheduled to host the Breeders’ Cup Nov. 1-2. It’s considered the biggest two-day event in U.S. horse racing.

Preakness winner War of Will likely to run in Belmont

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BALTIMORE (AP) Owner Gary Barber called trainer Mark Casse for the fourth time in 11 hours since War of Will won the Preakness.

Only this time, Casse was in the middle of holding court with reporters the morning after his first Triple Crown victory.

“All’s good and we’re going to the Belmont?” Casse said to Barber with a Cheshire cat grin. “I was kidding. I was making that up.”

Well, not totally.

Assuming all goes well in the coming weeks, Casse said “there’s an extremely good shot” War of Will goes to the Belmont Stakes on June 8 in New York. If he wins, he’d be the first horse since Afleet Alex in 2005 to fall short in the Kentucky Derby before capturing the Preakness and Belmont and would be the front-runner for 3-year-old horse of the year.

“It’s the third leg of the Triple Crown, who doesn’t want to win it?” Casse said Sunday. “There are only three Triple Crown races, and they’re pretty important. I think if you can do it you should do it. …

“That’s what we do. We run.”

Those watching the Preakness saw a horse run the entire race and then some after throwing off his jockey out of the starting gate, a scene that – once it was clear rider John Velazquez was OK – served as a reminder of how much thoroughbreds love to run. Bodexpress provided a memorable spectacle as War of Will fulfilled his potential at Pimlico.

The Belmont is another substantial test for the tough and talented War of Will because it’s a third race in six weeks and is the longest of the Triple Crown races at 1+ miles.

There won’t be a Kentucky Derby rematch with Maximum Security, who was disqualified for interfering with War of Will, or Country House, who was placed first and since been sidelined by illness. And two-time Triple Crown winning trainer Bob Baffert said he probably won’t take Improbable to the Belmont after finishing out of the money in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness as the favorite.

But War of Will could have to contend with Derby returners Tacitus, Master Fencer and perhaps Baffert’s Game Winner, along with Preakness surprise second-place finisher Everfast, third-place runner Owendale and ninth-place Signalman. Trainer Bill Mott ruled out Country House but is planning to take Tacitus to the Belmont and figures the gray colt will have no problem in a significantly longer race.

“He should handle it fine,” Mott said by phone Saturday. “My guess was that he’d handle the Derby distance fine, which he did. I was pleased. I think it goes the same for the Belmont. I think it’s within his grasp.”

If the Preakness had more than an extra quarter-mile, closers Everfast and Owendale might’ve put a scare into War of Will on Saturday. Everfast was a late entry by trainer Dale Romans three days before the race and opened at 50-1 but showed he might be a good long-distance runner.

“We almost had it,” Everfast jockey Joel Rosario said. “He ran great. We have a great shot at the Belmont.”

Tacitus, Everfast and Owendale will be strong challengers, but this should be War of Will’s Belmont to lose. Had he not endured such a rough trip in and been interfered with at Churchill Downs on May 4, there could be another wave of Triple Crown talk going on right now about a third winner in five years.

But Casse isn’t thinking about that, still grateful War of Will avoided going down in the Derby and was able to rebound and run well in the Preakness. He’ll monitor the horse back at Keeneland Racecourse in Lexington, Kentucky, to make sure a sore foot and his energy level are good enough to run in the Belmont on a three-week turnaround.

Casse can’t predict how War of Will responds this time, but he knows what it would mean if the horse comes out on top once again.

“He’s just an athlete,” Casse said. “It would just show that he’s tough and able to overcome things.”