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 features not only the rubber match between Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and Preakness winner Shackleford on Saturday, 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 runner-up 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's 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.
The New York Racing Association is hoping for a crowd of 60,000, far less than the record 120,139 that showed up for Smarty Jones' Triple Crown try in 2004. Weather could be a factor with forecasts calling for a 60 percent chance of rain, with thunderstorms possible by late afternoon, and temperatures in the high 60s.
Motion and Romans have said a wet track shouldn't be a problem for their horses, while long shot Ruler On Ice has won over a sloppy dirt track before.
Post time for the race on NBC is 6:35 p.m.
With one long lap around the only 1½-mile track in North America, the Belmont has been full of surprises. Since Thunder Gulch won as the favorite in '95, only two others have done the same — Point Given in 2001 and Afleet Alex in '05. Long shots have been coming home first on a regular basis. Last year it was 13-1 Drosselmeyer, two years ago Summer Bird at 11-1, and three years ago Da' Tara at 38-1. Birdstone spoiled Smarty Jones' bid for immortality at odds of 36-1 and Sarava ended War Emblem's Triple try in 2002 as a 70-1 shot.
How this Belmont unfolds is anybody's guess. One thing for certain is Shackleford will shoot for the lead from the outside No. 12 post under Jesus Castanon. The long, lanky colt led into the stretch at the Derby but couldn't hold off the closers and finished fourth. Then in the Preakness, he quickened the pace and held off Animal Kingdom to win by a half length.
"He's going to break and go to the lead," Romans said, "and we'll see how far he can go."
An intriguing outsider is Master of Hounds, a European invader who ran a commendable fifth in the Derby, and is back for another go on the deep, sandy Belmont track.
"He'll definitely put up a good show here," trainer Aidan O'Brien's assistant T.J. Comerford said. "The 1½ miles will hit him on the head."
Mucho Macho Man joins Animal Kingdom and Shackleford as the only horses to run in all three Triple Crown races this year. The colt trained by heart-transplant recipient Kathy Ritvo was third in the Derby and sixth in the Preakness after losing a front shoe at the start.
Fitted with new glue-on shoes, Mucho Macho Man is listed at 10-1 with Ramon Dominguez — New York's leading rider — aboard for the first time.
"These are tough horses," Ritvo said of this year's 3-year-old crop, considered by some to be a mediocre group due to the slow winning times in the Derby and Preakness. "All three that have run in all these races are competitive. It's not like anybody's running bad races."
Ritvo hopes it's her colt's turn to wind up in the winner's circle.
"With his long stride he's not going to be getting tired in the stretch," Ritvo said.
While the issue will be settled on the track, that hasn't prevented a little trash talking during the week. Outspoken Barry Irwin, whose Team Valor International owns Animal Kingdom, kicked off a friendly feud with Romans when he said he wasn't worried about Shackleford and proclaimed that Mucho Macho Man was the horse to beat.
Romans was quick with his reply: "That may not be the stupidest thing Barry's ever said, but it's close."
Dean Reeves, the majority owner of Mucho Macho Man, got in on the fun, too, saying he agreed with Irwin's assessment.
"We think we have the best horse in the country," Reeves said. "We just need to prove it, and hope Saturday we'll do that."
The field, from the rail out is Master of Hounds (Garrett Gomez, 10-1), Stay Thirsty (20-1, Javier Castellano), Ruler On Ice (Jose Valdivia Jr., 20-1), Santiva (Shaun Bridgmohan, 15-1), Brilliant Speed (Joel Rosario, 15-1), Nehro (Corey Nakatani, 4-1), Monzon (Jose Lezcano, 30-1), Prime Cut (Edgar Prado, 15-1), Animal Kingdom (John Velazquez, 2-1), Mucho Macho Man (Ramon Dominguez, 10-1), Isn't He Perfect (Rajiv Maragh, 30-1) and Shackleford (9-2, Jesus Castanon).