Creator edges Destin for Belmont Stakes victory

Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr., riding Creator, celebrates after winning the 148th running of the Belmont Stakes horse race, Saturday, June 11, 2016, in Elmont, N.Y. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr., riding Creator, celebrates after winning the 148th running of the Belmont Stakes horse race, Saturday, June 11, 2016, in Elmont, N.Y. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens) AP

It was too close for a declaration to be made on the wire, yet trainer Steve Asmussen had faith. And in the seconds after the 148th running of the Belmont Stakes was complete, the soon-to-be enshrined Hall of Famer ran onto the sandy Belmont Park oval and let loose celebratory yells, knowing his grand plan with Creator came to fruition.

When Creator’s No. 13 finally flashed above that of Destin’s No. 2, the whirlwind of Asmussen’s personal and professional journey washed over him with the rain from the heavens. So much of the last couple of years have been about the Texas native holding it together. And when given the opening of a classic victory, he let himself become happily unhinged.

“When he got to the wire, you thought he won,” Asmussen said of Creator’s furious rally. “We were waiting for them to put up the number and to turn loose.”

It wasn’t the history-making, Triple Crown sweep American Pharoah rocked the racing community with one year ago. Still, WinStar Farm and Bobby Flay’s Creator lifted his share of hearts as he got his nose down at the line over graded stakes winner Destin to win the 1½-mile, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes. Preakness Stakes winner and race favorite Exaggerator struggled home in 11th in the 13-horse field.

If the last couple years have been trying, the last few months for Asmussen have been about having his belief rewarded. He was voted into Racing’s Hall of Fame this April, two years after being subjected to allegations of mistreatment by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that were widely proven baseless. He then came into the Kentucky Derby believing Creator’s breakout victory in the Grade I Arkansas Derby on April 16 was a sign of things to come for the late-maturing colt, only to watch the son of Tapit finish 13th after a troubled trip on the first Saturday in May.

Asmussen informed WinStar Farm president Elliott Walden a week after the Kentucky Derby that he didn’t want to bring Creator to the final leg of the Triple Crown unless he felt confident he could win. After being given a genius ground-saving ride by Irad Ortiz Jr. and threading the needle between horses in the stretch to take aim at brave-running Destin, Creator validated more than just his prior form.

“It’s the best feeling right now. The great thing about racing is you have a bad day, bad week, bad month, they don’t put you behind the gates, they line you up even and give you a chance to prove yourself,” said Asmussen, who earned his first Belmont Stakes victory to go along with two Preakness Stakes triumphs. “The focus was today. This was (Creator’s) chance to win a classic. I think that we — we had a little frustration after the Derby. Hats off to the winners all the time … but I thought today the focus was for him to be on this stage to prove how good he was.

“We (skipped the Preakness) and waited to make sure that he was the same horse and I’m just very proud, very proud of the whole team and that he proved who he is today.”

One could say it took a village to get Creator in position for his redemption run.

With the Belmont shaping up as a paceless race, WinStar Farm made the call to transfer their maiden-winner Gettysburg from trainer Todd Pletcher to Asmussen’s barn for the sake of having the colt serve as a rabbit to aid the late-running Creator and Exaggerator, whom they own the stallion rights to.

The plan worked to perfection where Creator was concerned, but also served to stymie the Pletcher-trained Destin. Gettysburg struck the front as expected out of post No. 6 and cut fractions of 24.09 and 48.48 — an honest pace for a 12-furlong test — with Destin right off his hip all down the backstretch.

“It was not an easy decision because there were two trainers involved as well,” said Walden, who added that Pletcher would get Gettysburg back in his barn after the Belmont. “And my hat’s off to Todd. I spoke to Todd about this about a week ago. I felt like the right thing to do was to realign the camps because Todd had the second and third choice in the race, and I just felt like it would be easier on him to answer to his other owners. It would be easier on us if we realign the camp for this race.

“It was right for Creator. Todd received it with the class that he has. He understood. We have a great relationship. And it did work today.”

Pletcher said post-race he “didn’t care to comment” on the Gettysburg situation.

With Gettysburg giving way to Destin at the head of the stretch, Creator surged up between Stradivari and Governor Malibu after saving precious ground along the rail and wore down Destin to earn his third win in 10 career starts. UAE Derby winner Lani made a surge of his own to get third and the final time for the race was 2:28.51 over a fast track.

“I thought Irad gave him a perfect trip,” Asmussen said. “I thought he saved yards and won by inches. He made the difference.”

In running worse than third for just the third time in his 12 career starts, Exaggerator had his connections wondering what the difference was for the son the Curlin, who came up empty after rating just off the pace in fifth and sixth. Trainer Keith Desormeaux took the loss with grace, saying it was “no dishonor” to lose to a horse like Creator while his brother, jockey Kent Desormeaux, said he simply had no horse when he asked Exaggerator for his best run.

“I couldn’t have dreamt up a smoother ride,” Kent Desormeaux said. “At the quarter pole, I set him down, put him down for a mad drive and said ‘Show me your stuff.’ And there was nothing there. By the time we got to the eighth pole, he was stepping on his tongue and I said ‘that’s enough,’ let’s get him home. You can blame a million things after that effort, but I just know going in he couldn’t have been a happier horse.”

Added Keith Desormeaux, “It was a heck of accomplishment to win the Preakness, to win a classic. It’s disappointing (to lose) but it’s far from life-changing.”

Alicia Wincze Hughes: 859-231-1676, @horseracinghl