NEW YORK — Even without a Triple Crown on the line, the 143rd Belmont Stakes may indeed be the "Test of the Champion."
The final leg of the Triple Crown today features not only the rubber match between Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and Preakness winner Shackleford, but the top seven finishers from the Derby for the first time as well.
"Why did everyone pick this year to come back?" wondered a smiling Graham Motion, who trains Animal Kingdom.
After watching his Derby winner gallop around the 1½-mile main track at Belmont Park on Friday morning, Motion declared his colt in "great form" and up to the challenge of taking on a slew of rivals for the third time in five weeks.
"To have seven horses come back from the Derby, and to have the winner of the Preakness and Derby, what more can you want?" Motion said. "Everyone wants to see a Triple Crown winner, but ultimately this is the test of champions and I think this really is going to be that test."
Animal Kingdom is the 2-1 favorite in a field of 12 3-year-olds as he attempts to become the 12th horse to complete a Derby-Belmont double. The last to succeed was Thunder Gulch in 1995.
Derby runnerup Nehro is the second choice at 4-1, with Shackleford next at 9-2 as he tries to become the 19th horse to take the Preakness and Belmont.
Ahmed Zayat, who owns Nehro, can't wait to see what happens. Of course, he's hoping his colt will shed his bridesmaid reputation after second-place finishes in the Louisiana, Arkansas and Kentucky derbies.
"This race will be something special," he said. "It's another Derby at the test of champions."
The matchup of a Derby winner against a Preakness winner in the 1½-mile Belmont doesn't occur often. This will be the 22nd time it happens and first since 2005, when Preakness winner Afleet Alex defeated Derby winner Giacomo. Preakness winners have won 10 times, Derby winners five times.
Short of a Triple Crown bid, "this is going to be one of the most exciting Belmonts I can remember," Shackleford's trainer Dale Romans said.
Mucho Macho Man joins Animal Kingdom and Shackleford as the only horses to run in all three Triple Crown races this year.
PP Horse jockey trainerOdds
1. Master of Hounds Garrett Gomez Aidan O'Brien 10-1
2. Stay Thirsty Javier Castellano Todd Pletcher 20-1
3. Ruler On Ice Jose Valdivia Kelly Breen 20-1
4. Santiva Shaun Bridgmohan Eddie Kenneally 15-1
5. Brilliant Speed Joel Rosario Tom Albertrani 15-1
6. Nehro Corey Nakatani Steven Asmussen 4-1
7. Monzon Jose Lezcano Ignacio Correas 30-1
8. Prime Cut Edgar Prado Neil Howard 15-1
9. Animal Kingdom John Velazquez Graham Motion 2-1
10. Mucho Macho Man Ramon Dominguez Kathy Ritvo 10-1
11. Isn't He Perfect Rajiv Maragh Doodnauth 30-1
12. Shackleford Jesus Castanon Dale Romans 9-2