By Jack Ryan

It’s no exaggeration to say that Exaggerator is the favorite in tomorrow’s Belmont Stakes.

Here’s why.

At last month’s Kentucky Derby, jockey Kent Desormeaux felt confident that he was sitting on the best horse. When the starting gate opened, Exaggerator drifted back off the early pace, with Desormeaux placing the horse near the rail in the back of the 20-horse pack. As the front-runners began to tire, Exaggerator gained momentum, aggressively knifing his way between his rivals, picking off horse after horse.

But weaving through a crowd of lagging horses could only take him so far. “I had to hair-brake him,” Desormeaux said. “Really slam on the brakes.”

Exaggerator finished in second, 1¼ lengths behind Nyquist. “It was definitely a difference of two lengths,” Desormeaux said after the race. Exaggerator had the strongest finish at the Derby, running the last quarter-mile in 24.98 seconds, more than a second faster than Nyquist, according to Trakus, but it wasn’t enough.

Two weeks later in the Preakness, Exaggerator got that perfect trip, sweeping past Nyquist and the rest of the field to win in a romp on a muddy track in Baltimore (above).

It’s that split second at the Derby that makes tomorrow’s Belmont Stakes merely a top-notch horse race instead of a historic quest for the second Triple Crown in two years.

With Nyquist out of the Belmont with an illness, Exaggerator is the 9-5 morning-line favorite. Two main factors make Exaggerator the likeliest horse to win: Although Belmont Park is a quirky racetrack with an unusual sandy surface, Exaggerator has proven to be adaptable, with stakes wins at four different tracks. Handicappers also point to his speed figures, which are the highest in the race.

But 12 other horses will take a shot at the $1.5 million purse and beating a horse that could be feeling the wear and tear of the Triple Crown grind. Only Exaggerator and the Japan-based Lani are set to run in all three Triple Crown races.

The owners of Lani, who ran ninth in the Kentucky Derby and fifth in the Preakness, expect their horse to run better in New York.

Todd Pletcher, who trains both Stradivari (5-1) and Destin (6-1), the second and third betting choices in the Belmont, made a case for his horses while paying respect to the favorite.

“I think it is a wide open field and I think Exaggerator is a deserving favorite,” he said. Pletcher said Stradivari, who finished fourth in the Preakness, should improve in only his fifth career start. (By contrast, Belmont will mark Exaggerator’s fifth race of 2016 and 12th overall.) As for Destin, who returns to the track after a sixth-place finish in the Derby.

“He’s trained well since then,” Pletcher said. “He’s won a race over the Belmont track, and sometimes five weeks in between is helpful when you’re taking on horses like Exaggerator that are having their third race in five weeks.”

Trainer Dale Romans, is also taking a shot with two horses, Preakness runner-up Cherry Wine (8-1) and Brody’s Cause (20-1). He said that compared with recent years, when American Pharoah and California Chrome were making a run for Triple Crown glory, there are “no superstars” in this year’s race. “That’s kind of the thing about the Belmont if you don’t have a Triple Crown on the line,” he said.

Exaggerator’s trainer, Keith Desormeaux—older brother of jockey Kent Desormeaux—acknowledged that the hype for this year’s race may be dampened without a Triple Crown contender in the mix—although, he is running for a less notable slice of history: No Kentucky Derby runner-up has gone on to win the Preakness and the Belmont since 1955.

“It sure seems like Exaggerator has jazzed up some people,” he said. “Maybe they like the name and they like his running style, they like the distance of his wins, maybe they like this brother-brother thing. Hopefully we can get some fans that are not every day fans to come in and watch us compete, and hopefully we can provide them with a good show.”

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