ELMONT, N.Y. - No longer in the shadows following his emphatic victory in the Grade 1 Preakness Stakes, Big Chief Racing, Head of Plains Partners and Rocker O Ranch's Exaggerator will have the headliner's spotlight trained on him early Saturday evening in the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets at Belmont Park.
The 148th running of the 'Test of the Champion,' at 1 ½ miles the last and longest leg of racing's Triple Crown, puts an exclamation point on the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival, a spectacular three-day celebration serving up 19 stakes, 11 of them graded including six Grade 1 events, worth $9.6 million in purses.
Carded as the 11th race, post time for the Belmont is 6:37 p.m. EST as part of NBC's two-hour national telecast from 5-7 p.m. NBC Sports Network will provide additional coverage of Saturday's 13-race program from 3-5 p.m.
A dark bay or brown son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, second by a head to filly Rags to Riches in an historic 2007 Belmont, Exaggerator had finished behind previously undefeated 2015 2-year-old male champion Nyquist four times, including the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby May 7, before turning the tables with a 3 ½-length triumph in the Preakness.
Exaggerator, trained by California-based Keith Desormeaux in his Belmont Stakes debut, is attempting to become the 12th horse to win the Preakness and Belmont after falling short in the Kentucky Derby, and the first since Afleet Alex in 2005. In all, 18 horses have swept the final two-thirds of the Triple Crown including seven that did not run in the Derby.
"It's a little different than usually us coming through the back door, but I've always said I'd much rather have the favorite than be 20-1," Desormeaux said. "When you're 4-5 in your hopes of taking down a $1.5 million race, I'd much prefer that. It's not so bad."
The 9-5 program favorite in a field of 13 3-year-olds, Exaggerator will break from post position 11 under Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux, Keith's younger brother and winner of the 2009 Belmont with Summer Bird. All horses will carry 126 pounds.
"I'm truly very excited for Exaggerator, more thrilled that I'm here with my brother Keith. I just hope the story continues and we write another chapter," Kent Desormeaux said. "I'm so excited; I wish the race was today.
"I think the role has changed now. It becomes a situation that I actually enjoy," he added. "Everybody is going to want to be where I am and wonder where I am, so I hope they all take their horses out of their normal situations, their normal comfort levels and all want to be around Exaggerator, because Exaggerator is going to be where I'm comfortable."
What had been projected as a paceless race, a factor not suited to Exaggerator's typical closing style, changed with the late addition of front-running Gettysburg by WinStar Farm, which also owns Belmont contender Creator and will stand Exaggerator upon his retirement.
Keith Desormeaux remains unfazed by either scenario. Exaggerator has shown the ability to run closer to the lead, as in his runner-up finish to Nyquist in the seven-furlong Grade 2 San Vicente Feb. 15 and his neck victory in the Grade 3 Delta Jackpot last November.
"It's up to Kent. If the pace is fast, yeah, he'll be far back. If the pace is slow, he'll be closer. It's not a matter of how far back he is; it's a matter of being comfortable through the first half of the race. He just needs to be comfortable," Desormeaux said.
"Kent has got to judge his own pace. He's got to ride with blinkers. It doesn't matter who's out there," he added. "He just needs to drop Exaggerator's head, let him get in comfortable 12 and change eighths and they can have as many speed horses as they like. But that's easy for me to say."
Trying to become the first horse to finish second in the Derby and win the Preakness and Belmont since Nashua in 1955, and the second straight favorite following 2015 Triple Crown champion American Pharoah, Exaggerator will see some familiar faces in the Belmont.
From the Preakness comes fellow closer Cherry Wine, still looking for his first stakes victory but second by a nose over Nyquist; Belmont Park-based Stradivari (fourth) and Japanese owned and trained Group 2 UAE Derby winner Lani, the only horse besides Exaggerator to run in all three Triple Crown races (fifth).
Out of the Derby are Grade 3 Southwest winner Suddenbreakingnews (fifth); multiple graded stakes winner Destin (sixth); Brody's Cause, the only multiple Grade 1 winner in the Belmont other than Exaggerator (seventh); Grade 1 Arkansas Derby winner Creator (13th); and Grade 1 Wood Memorial runner-up Trojan Nation (16th).
"I think it is a wide open field and I think Exaggerator is a deserving favorite," two-time Belmont-winning trainer Todd Pletcher said. "He ran great in the Derby, and he ran great in the Preakness. He's shown up every time."
Pletcher will saddle both Destin and Stradivari in the Belmont, a race he won in 2007 with Rags to Riches and 2013 with Palace Malice. It will be the sixth time he has had multiple starters, including a record five horses in 2013. He was also the trainer for Gettysburg's first seven starts until WinStar moved the colt to trainer Steve Asmussen earlier in the week.
"I think Destin ran a sneaky good race in the Derby. He didn't get away from the gate the way we wanted to. We didn't get to the position that we wanted to. He had to work to kind of get to the top of the stretch in the position that we hoped he'd already naturally be in just kind of stalking the pace," Pletcher said. "He's trained well since then, he's won a race over the Belmont track, and sometimes five weeks in between is helpful when you're taking on horses like Exaggerator that are having their third race in five weeks.
"Stradivari, I think you can make a case that he was behind schedule a little bit leading into the Preakness and sometimes a race like that will move him forward. That's' what we're hoping. I think they've both shown that on their days they're capable of running with the best of this crop."
Second choice on the morning line at 5-1, Stradivari will break from post 5 with Hall of Famer John Velazquez aboard while Destin, third choice at 6-1, will have Javier Castellano aboard from post 2.
Dale Romans, third with four of his six career Belmont starters including Keen Ice last year, trains both Cherry Wine and Brody's Cause. Cherry Wine was fourth in the Grade 2 Rebel and third behind his stablemate in the Grade 1 Blue Grass before bypassing the Derby, while Brody's Cause also won the Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland and was third to Nyquist in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall.
"I would say Brody is the more talented, but Cherry Wine is on the improve. They're both good horses, but the key going into these big races is they're just training so well and they feel so good and they're so healthy. We're not trying to stop any leaks," Romans said.
"On past resumes, in my opinion, there's no superstars. Brody's Cause is very accomplished, two Grade 1 wins, but six months now this might look like a stellar group," he added. "That's kind of the thing about the Belmont if you don't have a Triple Crown on the line. But it seems like there's always some good ones that come out of there."
Cherry Wine will carry jockey Corey Lanerie from post 3 as the 8-1 fourth program choice. Luis Saez rides Brody's Cause (20-1) from post 12.
New York-bred Governor Malibu enters the Belmont after finishing second by less than a length in its local prep, the Grade 2 Peter Pan, May 14. The Malibu Moon colt won the Gander Stakes against state-breds to open his sophomore year and finished first in the Federico Tesio April 9 at Laurel but was disqualified to second for interference.
Governor Malibu is trained by Christophe Clement, who teamed with jockey Joel Rosario to win the 2014 Belmont with Tonalist and spoil California Chrome's Triple Crown bid. Rosario will ride Governor Malibu (12-1) from post 1.
"It takes a good horse to win the Belmont. This race is a huge deal for me. I train at Belmont and it means a lot. It's very ambitious so let's run it and see what happens," Clement said. "I'm very happy. The horse is doing very well and he's a very sound horse. He's training forwardly and I guess we'll have to find out if he's good enough." Suddenbreakingnews is another late runner who closed from dead last to finish fifth in the 1 ¼-mile Derby, less than five lengths behind Nyquist. He drew post 4 as the co-fifth choice at 10-1 with Hall of Famer Mike Smith aboard.
Gettysburg (30-1) will be making his third attempt in a graded stakes, having finished fifth in both the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Feb. 13 at Tampa Bay Downs and Arkansas Derby. Most recently, he was third as the favorite in a 1 1/16-mile entry-level allowance May 26 at Belmont. Jockey Paco Lopez makes his Belmont Stakes debut from post 6.
Trojan Nation (30-1) returns to New York for the second time since the April 9 Wood at Aqueduct, where he found himself in tight quarters along the rail and was beaten a head. Aaron Gryder, riding in his first Belmont, has the mount from post 9.
Rounding out the field are the Charles Fipke bred and owned pair of Seeking the Soul and Forever d'Oro making their stakes debuts for trainer Dallas Stewart. Both colts broke their maiden on the same day, May 29, with Forever d'Oro's victory coming at Belmont going 1 1/16 miles, while Seeking the Soul graduated running a mile at Churchill Downs.
Jose Ortiz has been named to ride Forever d'Oro and Florent Geroux will be aboard Seeking the Soul, both 30-1 on the morning line.