NEW YORK - Even without a Triple Crown on the line, the 143d 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 11/2-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 Belmont doesn't occur often. This will be the 22d time, 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.
143d Belmont Stakes
Here is the field for Saturday's 11/2-mile Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in New York. The $1 million race will be televised by NBC10, starting at 5 p.m. Expected post time for the Belmont is 6:35 p.m.
PP Horse Trainer /Jockey Odds
1. Master of Hounds Aidan O'Brien/Garrett Gomez 10-1
2. Stay Thirsty Todd Pletcher/Javier Castellano 20-1
3. Ruler On Ice Kelly Breen/Jose Valdivia Jr. 20-1
4. Santiva Eddie Kenneally/Shaun Bridgmohan 15-1
5. Brilliant Speed Tom Albertrani/Joel Rosario 15-1
6. Nehro Steve Asmussen/Corey Nakatani 4-1
7. Monzon Ignacio Correas/Jose Lezcano 30-1
8. Prime Cut Neil Howard/Edgar Prado 15-1
9. Animal Kingdom Graham Motion/John Velazquez 2-1
10. Mucho Macho Man Kathy Ritvo/Ramon Dominguez 10-1
11. Isn't He Perfect Doodnauth Shivmangal/Rajiv Maragh 30-1
12. Shackleford Dale Romans/Jesus Castanon 9-2
Purses: First place: $600,000. Second place: $200,000. Third place: $110,000. Fourth place: $60,000. Fifth place: $30,000.