06/02/2011 2:43PM

Belmont Stakes: Motion, Romans defend class of 2011

Debra A. Roma
Shackleford defeats Animal Kingdom in the Preakness.

The connections of the three favorites for the Belmont Stakes – Animal Kingdom, Shackleford, and Nehro – expressed optimism and excitement with their respective horses while defending the overall quality of the 3-year-old crop when addressing the racing media during a national teleconference Thursday afternoon.

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Graham Motion, trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, said the depth of the class is beginning to shine through in light of the results of the first two Triple Crown races and with how the 143rd Belmont is shaping up for next Saturday, June 11, at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y.

Motion said he found it “odd” that people are quick to denigrate a group of horses before time has proven them right or wrong.

Motion said Animal Kingdom winning the May 7 Derby and finishing second to Shackleford in the May 21 Preakness in his first two attempts on a dirt surface were “pretty extraordinary and unparalleled, to be honest. . . . I think it’s proving to be a solid group of horses, at the end of the day.”

Motion said Animal Kingdom has thrived since the Preakness and that he expects the colt to run another big race in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont. The colt is scheduled to ship this weekend from his Fair Hill training center base in Maryland to Belmont, then breeze Monday.

“I’ve been saying all along that this is the better crop than the press has been giving them credit for,” said Dale Romans, trainer of Shackleford. “You all do this every year. Sometimes you’re right, but sometimes you’re not. I think history will show that this is a lot better class than it’s been getting credit for.”

Romans said he is optimistic that Shackleford, who will breeze Saturday morning at Belmont, has the stamina for the grueling distance.

“I feel pretty good about it,” he said. “Like he showed in the Preakness, he’s got a high cruising speed. He’ll try to just keep on galloping around there.” Romaind said he wanted jockey Jesus Castanon “to get him in a rhythm like he did in the Preakness and keep going as long as he can.”

Romans has not fully committed Shackleford to the Belmont but said he expects to run “unless something negative happens.”

Ahmed Zayat, owner of Derby runner-up, Nehro, said he agonized over whether or not to skip the Preakness – which he ultimately did – but is satisfied with the decision to go straight from the Derby to the Belmont.

“There is no excuse for us going in,” said Zayat. “The horse has been training very well going in. We are ready. We are very happy with the way he’s going into the race. He is happy, sound, with the right attitude. This is a serious race, a stamina race. I couldn’t be any more excited.”

In all, a field of at least 11 3-year-olds remains firm for the Belmont. The first seven finishers from the Derby are expected to run, which would be the first time that has happened.

While this is the first Belmont since 2005 to rematch the winners of the Derby and Preakness, it is the third straight year that there will be no chance of a Triple Crown winner in the Belmont. Charles Hayward, president of the New York Racing Association, has said a Triple Crown on the line “basically doubles our attendance” and that it increases NYRA’s bottom line by several million dollars.

NBC and its sister network on cable, Versus, will provide extensive coverage of the Belmont and its lead-in races with a one-hour show (5-6 p.m. Eastern) on Friday and 4 1/2 hours of coverage (3-7:30 p.m.) on Saturday.Entries will be drawn Wednesday.