ELMONT, N.Y. – Trainer Steve Asmussen put an early exclamation point on the year that will mark his Hall of Fame induction when Creator staged a dramatic rally to overtake Destin by a nose in the 148th Belmont Stakes on Saturday at Belmont Park.
“It will look good on the plaque,” exulted Asmussen, referring to his induction into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame at Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in August.
Asmussen, 50, owns more than 7,300 career victories to lead all active trainers and rank second all-time, trailing only Dale Baird. But history best remembers those trainers who send out horses to win classics, and Asmussen’s previous attempts at winning the mile-and-a-half Belmont had brought heartbreak and disappointment.
Asmussen watched in dismay when Curlin, who went on to be a two-time Horse of the Year, was outdueled by Rags to Riches, a brilliant filly, in the 2007 “Test of the Champion.” And then Nehro could do no better than fourth for him in 2011.
But Asmussen was not about to look back in a game that forces its participants to constantly press forward.
“It’s the best feeling right now,” he said.
Creator’s surge gave him only the fourth nose victory in Belmont history and the first since Victory Gallop, patiently ridden by Gary Stevens, thwarted a Triple Crown bid by Real Quiet and his jockey, Kent Desormeaux
, in 1998.
Desormeaux, questioned throughout the years for possibly moving Real Quiet too soon, had only more frustration to show for his latest Belmont. Recognizing that heavily-favored Exaggerator, second in the Kentucky Derby and winner of the Preakness Stakes, did not have much left to give, he eased him in the stretch and wound up 11th of 13 starters. Exaggerator is trained by Kent’s older brother, Keith.
“My brother and I say that when we turn this guy loose, he pops a wheelie,” Kent said. “There was nothing there.”
It appeared that the third race in five weeks, combined with the arduous distance, was all a bit too much for Exaggerator.
“We’ll probably get him back to what he enjoys, a mile and a quarter,” Kent said.
The day belonged to Irad Ortiz Jr., 23, who already has established himself as one of the sport’s brightest young stars. He repeatedly pumped his right fist as he celebrated beyond the wire, knowing he had made all the right moves to nail Destin. Lani, the only horse other than Exaggerator to compete in all three legs of the Triple Crown, rallied for third.
“Irad gave him the perfect trip. He saved yards and won by inches,” Asmussen said. “He made the difference.”
Said Ortiz, who displayed extraordinary patience for such a young rider before splitting horses as part of his winning move: “He was calm, and I just waited for somewhere to go. When he got clear, he started running.”
Officials at WinStar Farm and celebrity chef Bobby Flay were jubilant as well. WinStar paid $440,000 to purchase Creator, a son of top sire Tapit, as a yearling at Keeneland’s September sale. Elliott Walden, chief executive officer at WinStar and a deeply religious man, was so impressed with the youngster that he thought of the divine when it came time to naming him.
“I liked the horse an awful lot as a 2-year-old,” Walden said. “That might have given me a sign, I don’t know.”
WinStar and Asmussen are to be credited for keeping the faith that Creator could rebound five weeks after he endured an extremely difficult trip in the Kentucky Derby under Ricardo Santana Jr. and was a thoroughly-beaten 13th.
They made another excellent decision when they decided to enter Gettysburg to ensure that Creator, a deep closer, would benefit from a solid pace.
“Gettysburg did his job,” Asmussen said. “A great call by Elliott there. Forty-eight and four for a half allowed Creator to show who he is.” Creator, who paid $34.80 to win, completed the distance in 2:28.51.
Flay might have felt that he was the luckiest one of all. He purchased a share in Creator in the days leading to the Belmont merely because he wanted to make sure the family members and friends he annually takes to the race would have a horse to root for. He was interested in a horse capable of competing on the undercard – until he heard that a stake in Creator was available.
“I shouldn’t even be sitting here,” Flay said from the podium. “The only thing I did was cheer the loudest.”