It takes a fair of bit of winding around the massive Belmont Park backstretch before you come upon Barn 58. On Sunday morning, the blanket of white carnations draped over the fence was a clear signal to passersby that they had indeed found the residence of the colt responsible for the latest upheaval in the 3-year-old male division.
It was even easier to spot freshly minted Belmont Stakes winner Creator as he and his stablemates walked trainer Steve Asmussen’s shedrow. He was the gray son of Tapit several members of the barn were taking pictures with, the one receiving a hug from his Hall of Fame trainer.
Asmussen said he kept “waking up every 15 minutes” Saturday night/Sunday morning wanting to watch the replay of Creator’s nose victory over Todd Pletcher-trainee Destin in the final leg of the Triple Crown. Remarkably, there was little bleariness to either the man himself or his equine protégé as WinStar Farm and Bobby Flay’s colt was declared in good order the morning after his dramatic triumph.
“I thought he was very proud this morning, very alert. I’m surprised by his energy level,” Asmussen said of Creator. “I thought it was a great race, I’ve watched the replay multiple times and (jockey) Irad (Ortiz Jr.) did a masterful job with him. I really thought the horse tried to win late. He laid it out there and dug in. I feel fortunate for his effort.”
Asmussen said Creator will head to WinStar Farm on Monday for a “mental freshening,” with the Grade I Travers Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 27 “absolutely” under consideration as a summer goal for the now multiple Grade I winner.
The respite is well earned, both for the effort Creator put out to rally from far back in the 1 1/2 -mile Belmont and the monster leaps in progress he has made since March. Talented but mentally immature, Creator required a yeoman-like effort from Asmussen’s staff to get him to blossom. He took six tries to break his maiden.
Prior to Creator’s last-to-first, breakout win in the Grade I Arkansas Derby on April 16, Asmussen said he could see the light bulb come on with regards to the colt’s race-day mindset. The newfound focus that allowed Creator to handle the electric atmosphere at Oaklawn Park that day is the same intangible Asmussen feels helped carry his first Belmont Stakes winner through the 12-furlong run Saturday without a hitch.
“The focus he showed prerace for the Arkansas Derby under the pageantry of Oaklawn and the crowds you get there … it unnerves quite a few horses,” said Asmussen, who is set to be inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame in August. “The focus he showed when the pressure was on, I think, is what ascended him to this level from a horse that took awhile to break his maiden.
When assistant trainer Darren Fleming led Creator over in the Arkansas Derby, “He said, ‘What a different horse we have today,’” Asmussen recalled. “And I think yesterday, he just stayed focused, the whole race, the traffic, he stayed focused. He never gave anything back. He stayed on the bridle and he stayed right underneath Irad. It didn’t overwhelm him.”
Joining Creator for a break at WinStar Farm is maiden-winner Gettysburg, the subject of a somewhat touchy Belmont Stakes storyline. Gettysburg, who is also owned by WinStar, was transferred from Pletcher to Asmussen for the purpose of having the son of Pioneerof the Nile serve as a pacesetter for Creator — a plan that worked as he led the field though fractions of 24.09 and 48.48.
“A race without Gettsyburg goes 50 and change for a half mile. And 50 and change makes it a cluster,” Asmussen said.
Though WinStar Farm president Elliott Walden said Saturday he “assured” Pletcher that he would get Gettysburg back after the race, Pletcher stated Sunday that he had since spoken with Walden and told him he would rather not have the colt come back into his care.
“It would probably be better to take a different path with him,” Pletcher said of Gettysburg. “I know he’s going to WinStar for a freshening and it will be Elliott’s decision what he does after that. I don’t think it’s a good look if he comes back to us.”
Pletcher was equal parts frustrated at seeing Destin beaten on the line after rating second behind Gettysburg early on, and proud of the effort the son of Giant’s Causeway delivered in what was just his second start in 13 weeks. Both Destin and stablemate Stradivari, who ran fifth in the Belmont, were reported by Pletcher to be in good order Sunday with the Grade II Jim Dandy on July 30 and Grade I Haskell Invitational on July 31 mentioned as options for each.
“I guess we’ll never know,” Pletcher said when asked if the result could have been different for Destin without Gettysburg in the race. “I mean, from our stable’s perspective, I did not feel like running Gettysburg was in my two horses’ best interests, and I had an obligation to those owners. And WinStar felt it was in their best interests to run Gettysburg, and that’s why that decision was made.
“Destin, I think, kept digging and kept fighting. Who knows (what would have happened) if he would have been loose on the lead. We don’t know.”
Trainer Keith Desormeaux was in a particularly reflective mood Sunday as he pondered what contributed to Kentucky Derby runner-up and Preakness Stakes winner Exaggerator finishing 11th in the field of 13 in the Belmont Stakes.
Prior to the Belmont, Exaggerator had never been worse than fifth in 11 starts. While jockey Kent Desormeaux said immediately after the race that he didn’t feel like the son of Curlin was struggling over the sandy track surface, older brother Keith had a different take on the situation less than 24 hours out.
“Exaggerator in his last three races prior to this race, the first comments Kent made to me after the horse pulled up was that he was cooled out already — in other words, he had already caught his breath and he was gathered by the time he got back to the winner’s circle,” Keith Desormeaux said. “Yesterday, he was panting and he was blowing and … it took him a good 45 minutes to catch his breath. The way that he cooled out tells me he was struggling over the track.
“I know Kent felt that he was OK and I’ll respect that. But it is a unique surface and I totally believe it took its toll on him. He just wasn’t the smooth horse that he normally is.”
Keith Desormeaux added that Exaggerator was still “vibrant” on Sunday morning and that the plan was still to have the dark bay colt remain in New York for the Jim Dandy and the Travers.
“All in all, what an experience. This is what we live for,” Desormeaux said of the colt who brought him his first classic win. “It still amazes me that so many people are interested in horses and their actions and their characteristics and traits. That’s what I fell in love with as a kid, so it’s so cool that so many people are interested as well. I hope we didn’t disappoint them.”