Five Derby starters back to challenge Exaggerator in Belmont

ELMONT, N.Y. -- Since the start of the millennium, eight of the 16 runnings of the Belmont Stakes have been won by horses who ran on Kentucky Derby weekend at Churchill Downs, then had five weeks off prior to the Belmont.

That angle could prove pivotal again this year, as five of the contenders in the 148th Belmont Stakes on Saturday have been similarly managed in the hopes of pulling off an upset over the favored Exaggerator, who will be just one of two horses -- along with Lani -- to run in all three legs of the Triple Crown this year.

Thirteen horses were entered in the 1-1/2-mile Belmont on Wednesday, the second-largest field in the past 20 years, bested only by the 14 who ran in 2013. With Nyquist having won the Derby and Exaggerator the Preakness, this will be the first Belmont without a Triple Crown bid since 2013.

Exaggerator, who was second in the Derby, drew post 11 and is strongly favored, especially with Nyquist skipping this race after taking ill following the Preakness. Exaggerator is 3-5 on the morning line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper, and 9-5 on the line of Eric Donovan of the New York Racing Association.

Stradivari is the distant second choice on Watchmaker's line at 10-1, with Destin next at 12-1. Donovan also has Stradivari as the second choice, but at 5-1, and Destin the third choice at only 6-1.

From the rail out, the field is Governor Malibu, Destin, Cherry Wine, Suddenbreakingnews, Stradivari, Gettysburg, Seeking the Soul, Forever d'Oro, Trojan Nation, Lani, Exaggerator, Brody's Cause and Creator.

"Exaggerator is the deserving favorite," said Donnie Von Hemel, who trains Suddenbreakingnews, who was fifth in the Kentucky Derby in his last start after finishing second in the Arkansas Derby. "We have to hope that it's an advantage that we didn't run in the Preakness and pointed to the Belmont.

"It was three weeks from the Arkansas Derby to the Kentucky Derby, then it would have been two weeks to the Preakness, then three to the Belmont. We thought our horse's best chance to win a Grade 1 Triple Crown race was the Belmont."

Destin (sixth in the Derby), Brody's Cause (seventh), Creator (13th), and Trojan Nation (16th) have been similarly managed.

"The five weeks should do him some good," said Dale Romans, who trains Brody's Cause.

This style of management is a fairly recent phenomenon, reflecting the gradual trend of trainers giving their horses more time between starts. Empire Maker in 2003 and Birdstone in 2004 stopped Triple Crown bids after running in the Derby and then laying in wait until the Belmont.

"It definitely made a difference, I know it did," trainer Nick Zito, who sent out Birdstone to deny Smarty Jones the Triple Crown, said this week. "The Triple Crown itself is such a strenuous thing. It's so hard just to get to the Derby with all the preps -- Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas Derby, Blue Grass. So many, right or wrong. By giving Birdstone a good break in between, he was able to recover mentally."

Commendable (2000), Jazil (2006), Summer Bird (2009), Union Rags (2012) and Palace Malice (2013) also ran in the Derby and then had five weeks off before winning the Belmont. Rags to Riches (2007) won the Kentucky Oaks the day before that year's Derby and then awaited the Belmont.

"It's a logical move for us if you're not set on the Preakness," said Todd Pletcher, who trained both Rags to Riches and Palace Malice and has Destin on a similar schedule this year, as he watched his horses train at Belmont Park. "We get to spend five weeks here preparing for it. It makes sense.

"Any time you're running at your home track, it's somewhat of an advantage. We get five weeks, settle in. The five weeks from the Derby -- or the Oaks in the case of Rags to Riches -- is good timing. You get a good foundation in the preps and then the Derby or the Oaks, a real good conditioning foundation you need to run a mile and a half."

Destin, Pletcher said, "has done well, put on a few pounds since the Derby."

"I thought he ran an underappreciated race in the Derby," Pletcher said. "Unfortunately, he didn't break well. The track was advantageous to horses who were closer than he was. He used up a lot of energy to get to a good position at the top of the stretch, and then he flattened out, but it wasn't a bad effort by any means."

Pletcher also trains Stradivari.

Three other trainers have multiple entries. Steve Asmussen has Creator and recently had Gettysburg transferred to his barn; Romans sends out Brody's Cause and Cherry Wine, and Dallas Stewart will run Forever d'Oro and Seeking the Soul, both of whom are owned by Charles Fipke.

Kenny Troutt's WinStar Farm is the majority owner of Creator -- in whom celebrity chef Bobby Flay purchased a minority interest on Wednesday -- and owns Gettysburg. WinStar also owns the breeding rights to Exaggerator.

Exaggerator completed his serious training for the Belmont on Tuesday with a five-furlong workout timed by DRF in 1:00.92. He jogged two miles on the training track Wednesday and seemed quite fresh, as though he's still thriving despite the demands of the Triple Crown.

"It took him a half-mile to settle," trainer Keith Desormeaux said.

Also on Wednesday, Lani worked five furlongs in 1:00.74 at the end of the third of his four trips around the oval.

The Belmont is the 11th race on a 13-race card on Saturday. It will be shown live by NBC Sports during a two-hour telecast that begins at 5 p.m. Eastern.

-- additional reporting by David Grening and Mike Welsch