Faith in Creator produces Belmont victory

- -

The connections of Creator aren’t shy about proclaiming their faith in God – thus the name of the gray son of Tapit – and they never lost a similar devotion to the colt leading up to the final jewel of the Triple Crown.

Creator repaid WinStar Farm’s and Steve Asmussen’s faith in his abilities Saturday at Belmont Park as he stormed down the stretch under a savvy ride from Irad Ortiz Jr. to win the 148th running of the Belmont Stakes by a nose over Destin just before the skies opened up for a 20-minute shower. Creator won the 1 1/2-mile Belmont in 2:28.51. Japan’s Lani, ninth in the Kentucky Derby and fifth in the Preakness, finished third, while Governor Malibu was fourth in the field of 13.

Creator was 13th of 20 five weeks ago in the Kentucky Derby, an ignominious finish that might lead many to not take a shot in any of the other spring classics. His connections remained bullish, however, watching him train with purpose at Churchill Downs before making the decision to skip the Preakness and wait for the Belmont.

The improvement from deep Derby also-ran to Belmont winner wasn’t unlike 2013 winner Palace Malice, who finished 12th in Louisville before upending Preakness winner Oxbow and Derby winner Orb in the final jewel of the Triple Crown here on Long Island.

Commendable takes top honors for worst finish in the Derby – he finished 17th and beaten 26 lengths by Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 – then skipped the Preakness before winning the Belmont gate-to-wire for trainer D. Wayne Lukas and jockey Pat Day.

Creator finished 18 1/4 lengths behind Nyquist in the Kentucky Derby, an effort that looked a lot worse on paper than on video replays. Well back early, Creator started to make progress before checking sharply and bumping with Oscar Nominated en route to his poor finish.

“Going up to the Derby, I thought that he had a wonderful chance,” said Asmussen, who added a Belmont to his Hall of Fame resume after earlier classic wins with Curlin and Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness. “Just the progress the horse had made through the spring, the confidence level he was at. We were extremely confident Derby week, and I thought traffic that day obviously didn’t allow him to show it.”

Elliott Walden, WinStar’s racing manager and the trainer of 1998 Belmont winner and 1999 champion older male Victory Gallop, went to Churchill Downs to watch Creator train in the days immediately following the Derby to asses his chances of moving forward on the Triple Crown road. He wasn’t convinced after a half-mile breeze in :51.60 nine days after the Derby.

Walden and Asmussen gained confidence after back-to-back 5-furlong moves May 23 and May 30, works where Creator showed more enthusiasm.

“We trained him at Churchill off of the Derby, observed him in familiar surroundings,” Asmussen said. “Elliott came out and watched him go a few times. We watched the breeze about 12 days before this, kind of validated his readiness. We were happy with his energy level, how he was traveling, his weight.

“At that point, Elliott wanted to get Irad for him. We secured Irad for the mount and made arrangements for him to get here, let him have a little look see at the place, but we felt that he came here ready.”

The wheels were in motion as Exaggerator and his team set their sights for New York after that colt upended previously unbeaten Derby winner Nyquist in the Preakness. A small field originally took shape before other contenders – a dozen of them in fact – joined the fray to take on the Preakness winner. Celebrity chef Bobby Flay jumped in the mix, too, purchasing a piece of Creator from WinStar so he could participate in the oldest and longest of the U.S. classics.

“Steve told me a week after the Derby that he didn’t want to come here unless he felt like he could win,” Walden said. “So he watched one work, and it was just okay, a half in :51. And then like Steve said, we watched the second work together. But hats off to Steve for really not just wanting to be participating, he wanted to come with a chance to win. That’s why he’s a Hall of Famer.”

Ortiz delivered a near flawless ride in his first ride of Creator, coming between horses at the top of the stretch before staying busy to wear down Destin on the last jump. Destin attended the early pace of :48.48 for the half and 1:37.96 for the mile set by Gettysburg, entered by WinStar as a pacesetter, the entire trip.

Destin and Javier Castellano shook loose in the stretch, opening up by 1 1/2 lengths at the eighth pole before yielding late. Lani made a sustained run from 12th early to midpack up the backstretch as he finished 1 1/2 lengths back in third. Exaggerator, the 3/2 favorite, was 11th in the worst performance of his career.

“The Triple Crown might have caught up to him,” Exaggerator’s trainer Keith Desormeaux said. “When he pulled up he didn’t looked winded. I don’t know. We’ll have to figure it out.”