Beneath ominous gray clouds, two thoroughbreds whose color matched the sky’s sprinted toward the finish line. Destin had led the 148th Belmont Stakes since the top of the stretch, but to his outside, Creator was surging. Irad Ortiz Jr. had plenty of horse, but did he have enough time to get there?
He did, by inches, just before a downpour drenched Belmont Park late Saturday afternoon.
In the final stride, Creator, a 16-1 shot, got his nose in front for Ortiz, a 23-year-old rising star. That strip of light gray skin provided the first Belmont triumph for him and for trainer Steve Asmussen, who was voted into the Hall of Fame two weeks before Creator finished 13th in the Kentucky Derby.
“I was glad to see them put our number up,’’ said Asmussen, second all-time with more than 7,300 wins. “Irad gave him a perfect trip. I thought he saved yards and won by inches.”
Creator’s flaring nostrils also denied the country’s best rider, Javier Castellano, his first Belmont victory and Todd Pletcher, America’s perennial leading trainer, his third.
To lose by so little after 1½ miles, well, few lows in sports can match that anguish. Pletcher stoically took the pain. “Destin ran a great race,’’ he said. “Tough beat.’’
Japan-based Lani, another gray, was third, 1½ lengths farther back, and Governor Malibu, who got jammed up on the inside, ran fourth. Far behind was the race’s major disappointment, Preakness winner Exaggerator, the 7-5 favorite, who was wide throughout under Kent Desormeaux and finished 11th of 13 after not being pushed late.
“I set him down at the quarter pole, and there was nothing there,’’ said Desormeaux, who teamed with trainer Keith Desormeaux, his older brother. “By the time we got to the eighth pole, he was stepping on his tongue. He was empty.’’
Elliott Walden, CEO and president of WinStar Farm, is very religious, closing interviews with “God bless you,” and he said he named Creator to honor the Supreme Being.
“Faith in God,’’ Walden said. “We are a Christian farm, so we look for opportunities to name horses after religious themes. We’ve named one New Testament and another one Benediction.”
Fellow believers and giddy souls who cashed on the long shot may have attributed victory to divine intervention. The hand of man, specifically Walden’s, deserves the credit.
It had been 10 years since a deep closer, Jazil, won the Belmont, a marathon that counterintuitively usually favors tactical speed. Creator is slow early, so enter the rabbit. To help set up his late run, Walden switched the speedy Gettysburg from Pletcher’s barn to Asmussen’s.
Destin stalked Gettysburg in second for 1¼ miles before hitting the front. If Destin could have set the pace, he probably would have held on. “Gettyburg did his job,’’ Asmussen said. “Great call by Elliott. A 48 4/5-second half-mile allowed Creator to show who he is. Very proud of Creator. He stayed focused coming through all the traffic and did all he could to get up and win a great race.”
Ortiz rode like a 20-year veteran. He and Creator were 10th after a half-mile and sixth after a mile, never getting off the rail. They didn’t leave the inside until leaving the far turn, when they took off after Destin. “Creator was calm and I just waited for somewhere to go,” Ortiz said. “When he got clear, he started running. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Creator paid $34.80 for his third victory in 10 starts after being timed in 2:28.51 on a fast track. The son of the world’s leading sire, Tapit, earned $800,000, more than doubling his bankroll to $1,568,320. Tapit also sired Lani.
Behind the first four were Stradivari, Brody’s Cause, Cherry Wine, Gettysburg, Suddenbreakingnews, Trojan Nation, Exaggerator, Seeking the Soul and Forever d’Oro.
It wasn’t Walden’s first Belmont win. He trained Victory Gallop, another closer who scored by a nose, denying Real Quiet the Triple Crown in 1998. WinStar’s Drosselmeyer won it in 2010, and Creator provided an encore.
“We liked this horse a lot as a 2-year-old,” Walden said. “God may have given me a sign, I don’t know.”
Then again, there’s that old saying, “The Lord helps those who help themselves.” Believe it.
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