06/08/2016 3:59PM

Crist: NYRA giving a boost to long-distance racing

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In 2014 and 2015, a newly constructed Belmont Stakes Day was dominated by the suspense of whether a Derby and Preakness winner could complete the first Triple Crown since 1978. This year, with no crown on the line, it may be easier to appreciate the enormity of a card that has turned into the second-richest day on the American racing calendar.

Every race from the third through the 11th is a stakes, five of them Grade 1s and four with seven-figure purses: the $1.5 million Belmont, the $1.25 million Metropolitan for older males, the $1 million Manhattan for older grass horses, and the $1 million Ogden Phipps for older fillies. The afternoon’s total purses of $7.78 million are second only to Breeders’ Cup Saturday.

Martin Panza, the New York Racing Association’s vice president who has overseen the consolidation of all these races into a single afternoon, has said he sees the day as a kind of midyear Breeders’ Cup. Saturday is also the final day of a three-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival, with an increasing number of stakes races being added to the Thursday and Friday cards each year. There were three Thursday stakes and six on Friday, and a theme beyond good racing is beginning to emerge: Panza is almost singlehandedly trying to revive long-distance stakes racing.

There were five races carded at 1 1/2 miles or longer during this year’s festival: On Thursday, there was the $200,000 Belmont Coronation at 1 15/16 miles for turf fillies; the Friday card included the $150,000 Rags to Riches at 1 1/2 miles for older fillies and the $300,000 Belmont Gold Cup at two miles (!) on the turf; and Saturday’s stakes include both the Belmont and the Brooklyn at 1 1/2 miles each.

This is a revolutionary lineup and one that could add a new facet to the sport. Long-distance racing is vexingly unfamiliar to most American racegoers, and races such as these will create opportunities for a new group of horses to shine and perhaps strengthen the breed by rewarding stamina as well as speed. It’s a welcome development.

Saturday’s Grade 1 races include some important divisional showdowns. The $700,000 Acorn drew a field of just six, but it includes Cathryn Sophia, the Kentucky Oaks winner, and Go Maggie Go, who won the Black-Eyed Susan. The Ogden Phipps field includes multiple Grade 1 winners and Eclipse finalists such as Cavorting, Curalina, Forever Unbridled, Stopchargingmaria, and Sheer Drama. The Manhattan features the season debut of Flintshire, the two-time Arc de Triomphe runner-up.

As for the Belmont, my first instinct was that it was going to be well worth trying to beat Exaggerator as an odds-on favorite, but then he was installed as only a 9-5 favorite on Eric Donovan’s morning line. At that price, I have no argument with him as he tries to become the sixth horse in the last 40 years to win the Preakness and Belmont after losing the Derby, joining Risen Star (1988), Hansel (1991), Tabasco Cat (1994), Point Given (2001), and Afleet Alex (2005).

In the absence of his rival Nyquist, Exaggerator is by far the most accomplished entrant in the race. He was clearly better than the eight colts who have finished behind him in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, and the four new shooters in the field would have to improve mightily to contend.

Of those who have tried him already, Stradivari appeals the most. In the Preakness, he was making just his fourth career start and his stakes debut, and he ran a creditable fourth, beaten just 1 1/2 lengths for third by Nyquist while eager early and wide late. He has the cruising speed to run well from just off the pace.

Destin is another who probably will be forwardly placed in a race without an abundance of early speed. He came into the Derby off an unusual eight-week layoff and should be fitter now with that race behind him and just a five-week gap into the Belmont.

The other realistic contenders are deep closers, a group that includes Brody’s Cause, Cherry Wine, Creator, Lani, and Suddenbreakingnews. All have finished strongly in shorter races, which might make you think they will thrive at 1 1/2 miles – but history shows that few Belmonts are won with a late charge from the clouds. Some would question Exaggerator on those grounds, but he appears to have more versatility and tactical speed than the quintet listed above. Exaggerator was a length off a 44.49-second opening half-mile in the San Vicente Stakes and took the lead after a mile in the Preakness.

Of the closers, Lani has some appeal at 20-1. The Japanese-based colt, who will join Exaggerator as the only horses to contest all three legs of this year’s Triple Crown, was widely regarded as a joke because of his bizarre morning antics, but the same clockers who were mocking his behavior six weeks ago now say he is coming into this race better than ever. His daily three-mile gallops should have him fitter than fit.

So, let’s call the race Exaggerator, Stradivari, Lani, and Destin in a Belmont that isn’t a do-or-die moment of racing history but the last of 10 stakes on what shapes up to be an outstanding Saturday afternoon of racing.

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