Reflections on post positions and life ahead of the Belmont Stakes
by RON FLATTER
In a race with so many closers, it would be hard to find a jockey or a trainer who did not like his draw for Saturday’s 148th running of the Belmont Stakes (click for FREE Ultimate Past Performances. For ALL Brisnet.com Belmont Park handicapping info, CLICK HERE).
Then again, it was hard to find a jockey or a trainer, period, since only one of each showed up for Wednesday’s draw at Rockefeller Center in rainy Manhattan, about 20 miles and a good – or not-so-good – hour from Belmont Park. One of those present, though, was the man of the hour.
“I couldn’t have hoped for a better scenario,” Racing Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux said after Preakness Stakes winner and Kentucky Derby runner-up Exaggerator drew gate 11 in the field of 13. “I don’t think there’s any horse quicker than him from the gate on his outside. I should be able to position him in a fancy spot. He may never get a grain of sand in his face, which is encouraging. A dream run would be third, three-wide, waiting to pull the trigger.”
The trainer of the only other horse that will have run in all three Triple Crown races was also predictably pleased.
“It was a nice draw. I’m happy with that,” Mikio Matsunaga said through a translator about Lani getting post position 10. “It is ideal.”
Lani finished ninth in the Kentucky Derby and fifth in the Preakness.
Just as predictable as everyone – or anyone – painting the best possible picture of his draw was the establishment of Exaggerator as the morning-line favorite. He is 9-5 with Todd Pletcher-trained Stradivari, fourth in the Preakness, made the second favorite at 5-1 and drawing post position 5. Then comes Pletcher’s other colt, sixth-place Derby finisher Destin, drawn 2 at 6-1, followed by Preakness runner-up Cherry Wine, drawn 3 at 8-1.
Gettysburg, the latecomer filling the race’s gaping void for early speed, got post position 6 and is generally seen as being a rabbit again as he was in setting up Creator’s win in the Arkansas Derby. After a troubled 13th in the Kentucky Derby, Creator drew the outside post 13 and has odds of 10-1. Both owned by Winstar Farm, Creator has been trained by Steve Asmussen, who just added Gettysburg on a transfer from trainer Todd Pletcher.
“I think they drew ideal, really good spots for them,” Asmussen said by telephone Wednesday afternoon. “The length of time staying in the gate, the whole nine yards. I wasn’t too concerned about where (Creator) drew. He’s not really fast away from the gate, and he’s been in full fields multiple times in his career.”
Even with Gettysburg’s speed to his inside, Desormeaux would not be drawn into guaranteeing his dream run for Exaggerator would come true. Not with so much distance to cover in the 1½ miles at Belmont Park.
“I’m going to let Exaggerator get comfortable,” Desormeaux said. “I know with the human element involved, those jockeys know it’s a long way. They’ll probably all be trying to slow down and find him.”
Desormeaux is a rare expert when it comes to rallying from far back to win this race. With Summer Bird seven years ago, Desormeaux had only the fifth Belmont winner since 1899 to begin the stretch drive more than two lengths off the lead.
“It’s probably preferable not to do,” he said. “It’s a stayers’ race. Horses are not usually going to pass too many horses coming down the lane. Summer Bird was trapped and really, really desiring to progress from the 5/8ths pole to the quarter pole. At about the 5/16ths (pole) I finally got to release him, and he just exploded. That is a very unusual situation for the Belmont Stakes, and I hope I don’t have to do that.”
Governor Malibu, a new shooter to the Triple Crown that finished second in last month’s Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont, drew the rail and is a 12-1 long shot for trainer Christophe Clement, who parlayed Tonalist’s Peter Pan win two years ago into a Belmont victory.
“I’m very happy with the draw,” Clement said by phone from Belmont Park. “But the jockey (Joel Rosario) will ride him. I will worry about the horse being fit for the race.”
While Governor Malibu figures to be closer to early pace, Suddenbreakingnews will be among the many racing from behind – and then some. He comes back after spotting the field 27 lengths in the Kentucky Derby before rallying to finish fifth. The ridgling by Mineshaft got post position 4 and has odds of 10-1.
“I love it,” owner Sonny Henderson said of the draw. “He can go either way. He can go to the rail or he can go on the outside. It doesn’t make any difference. I want him to lay back there like he’s been doing and run the same type of race.”
Henderson said a clue to what happens Saturday may have come April 16 in the Arkansas Derby, where Gettysburg set the pace for Creator’s 1¼-length victory. Suddenbreakingnews made a big run around the field, went six wide in the stretch and finished second, seemingly with a lot of horse left in a race that was three furlongs shorter than the Belmont.
“I would’ve won that race if I had another half a furlong,” Henderson said. “He’s a two-turn horse. He likes a mile-and-a-half. It’s set up for him right now. I made a hell of a run in the Kentucky Derby. I got knocked into the rail. He got loose out of it and circled the horses and was running over everything. If I don’t have any problems, I’m going to be right there.”
But Asmussen is not convinced a repeat of the Oaklawn scenario is in the offing. “The mile-and-a-half race and how this group of 3-year-olds handles it is unique in itself,” he said.
Challenges have not been hard to find for Lani. Whether it has been his ornery disposition training at Churchill Downs, his slow start and wide trip to finish ninth in the Derby or having to steady late in his run to fifth at the Preakness, the Japanese import has not exactly had it easy. But Matsunaga is optimistic about this longer race.
“This is closer to the best distance for him,” he said. “This course has a very wide corner, so it’s not too tight coming into the straight. (The short homestretch) is not a big matter for him.”
As businesslike as Matsunaga sounded, Desormeaux was as much enthusiastic looking forward to Saturday. Yet his thoughts were very to the point and terse when he was asked again Wednesday about his brief stay since the Preakness in an alcohol-rehabilitation program in Utah.
“I feel like a teenager. I feel like an idiot for the last 35 years,” Desormeaux said.
But about the opportunity to collect his eighth classic victory, Desormeaux was practically gushing.
“I have been so excited about the race,” he said. “I think the biggest part is the anxious moments of wanting to learn our destiny.”