Exaggerator heads out to the track for Friday's morning training session in preparation for the 148th running of the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in Hempstead, NY. (Photo by David Hahn/Icon Sportswire)

Can Exaggerator make up for Nyquist’s Belmont absence?

(David Hahn/Icon Sportswire)

A year ago, the Belmont Stakes drew record crowds and huge TV ratings as American Pharoah continued his historic 3-year-old season. He ended the Triple Crown drought with an easy win and he went on to make it a Grand Slam with a win in the Breeders’ Cup.

There isn’t that kind of excitement this year.

Nyquist looked like he might be another superhorse when he kept his undefeated streak alive with a romp in the Kentucky Derby, but a brutal pace and torrid rain let Exaggerator sweep past him to win the Preakness.

Saturday, though, won’t feature a sixth matchup between the two top horses of their birth year. Nyquist isn’t in New York as he recovers from an illness and rests up for the fall campaign leading up to the Breeders’ Cup.

That makes Exaggerator a huge favorite in a field that only includes one other runner who took part in the Derby and Preakness. Japanese star Lani finished a distant ninth at Churchill Downs and didn’t threaten Exaggerator in the Preakness. There’s no reason for him to be in the starting gate in New York, unless owner Koji Maeda wanted a complete set of saddle blankets.

With nine horses running that weren’t in Baltimore, the shape of the race promises to be entirely different. While Nyquist, Uncle Lino and Awesome Speed battled through the first six furlongs of the Preakness, causing them to fall apart down the stretch, there doesn’t seem to be the same kind of pace duel setting up in the Belmont.

Longshot Gettysburg will probably lead early, but he’s never shown any sign that he can sustain his speed through 1 ½ miles. In his last race – a N1X allowance – he faded badly down the stretch at 1 1/16 miles. If you can find someone who will let you bet on who will lead after a half-mile, he’s a great choice. Beyond that, forget about him.

Among the serious contenders, expect Destin and Stradivari to be at the front of the field. Both horses have made intriguing appearances in the Triple Crown cycle, and there is good reason to think they could step forward on Saturday.

Destin came into the Derby off an eight-week layoff, and it showed when he got into good position at the top of the stretch. Instead of making the kind of charge that Exaggerator put on to grab second, he faded back to sixth. Now he’s coming back after a normal five-week break, and should be sharper down the stretch.

Stradivari, on the other hand, was only making his fourth career start in the Preakness and might have been a little too close to the speed duel. He still finished fourth, and this early in his career, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him take a step forward.

Behind that pair should be the 1-2 finishers in the Preakness, Exaggerator and Cherry Wine. They aren’t going to have the luxury of running at exhausted horses this time, but Exaggerator is good enough that he’s going to be a serious threat down the stretch. Cherry Wine probably won’t be.

There are two other significant threats – Blue Grass winner Brody’s Cause and Arkansas Derby winner Creator. Both are late closers that flopped badly in the Kentucky Derby, finishing seventh and 13th respectively.  Like Cherry Wine, they need a race that collapses after an early speed duel, and they aren’t likely to get it.

The rest of the field just isn’t very good. Governor Malibu and Suddenbreakingnews have never won a graded stakes, while Seeking The Soul and Forever d’Oro have only won against maidens. Trojan Nation hasn’t even done that, going winless in seven career starts including a 16th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby.

Exaggerator is going to be coming strong at the finish, trying to be the first horse to rally from a Derby loss to win the Preakness and Belmont since Afleet Alex in 2005. He’ll pass Destin before the finish line, but it will be Stradivari who wins the Belmont and makes himself into a major player for the fall 3-year-old races.

Can Exaggerator make up for Nyquist’s Belmont absence?

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