Animal Kingdom is the morning-line favorite for the Belmont.<br><a target="blank" href="">Order This Photo</a>

Animal Kingdom is the morning-line favorite for the Belmont.
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Rick Samuels

Animal Kingdom 2-1 Belmont Choice; Post 9

Dozen 3-year-olds entered for June 11 classic at Belmont Park.

Animal Kingdom , winner of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and second in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), was installed as the 2-1 morning-line favorite for the $1 million Belmont Stakes (gr. I) at the post position draw at Belmont Park June 8.

To be ridden by John Velazquez for owner Team Valor International and trainer Graham Motion, Animal Kingdom will break from post 9 in the field of 12 3-year-olds that were entered in the June 11 event. Nehro, the Derby runner-up who sat out the May 21 Preakness, is the 4-1 second choice and drew post 6. He will be ridden by Corey Nakatani.

Shackleford , upset winner of the Preakness for owners/breeders Mike Lauffer and Bill Cubbedge and trainer Dale Romans, is the 9-2 third choice. He will start from the outside 12 post  under regular rider Jesus Castanon.

Two other Derby runners, Mucho Macho Man  (post 10), the third-place finisher, and fifth-place Master of Hounds (post 1), are the co-fourth choices at 10-1.

In all, a record eight runners from the Derby will start in the “Test of the Champion” at 1 1/2 miles. The other Derby starters are: Santiva  (sixth), Brilliant Speed (seventh), and Stay Thirsty  (12th).

With Belmont Park’s 12-furlong layout and nearly quarter-mile run to the first turn, post positions are not nearly as vital to success as they are in the Derby and Preakness.

“I think post 12 will be alright,” said Lauffer. “Our horse has speed, and we have come-from-behind horses just inside us, so we should be able to cut across and be in good shape going into the first turn. I think we’re going to be out front. We don’t want to go as fast as we did in the Preakness the first quarter, so if we can get out and get him relaxed, we’ll be OK.”

In the Derby, jockey Castanon was able to nurse Shackleford’s speed and lead the Derby field through an opening half-mile in :48.63 and six furlongs in 1:13.40. In the Preakness, he pressed the pace with the son of Forestry through an opening half-mile in :46.87 and six furlongs in 1:12.01.

Romans concurred with Lauffer about the pace scenario.

“Everybody expects us to be on the lead, and we’ll be on the lead,” he said.

The one horse most people expect to run down Shackleford in the Belmont stretch is Animal Kingdom. The homebred son of Leroidesanimaux roared past Shackleford to win the Derby by 2 3/4 lengths over Nehro while making his main track debut. In the Preakness, Animal Kingdom came from far off the pace to gain contention, but failed to take the second leg of the Triple Crown by a half-length. Motion expects a different race this weekend.

“He’s going to be closer to the pace,” he said. “He won’t be as far back as he was in the Preakness. Certainly he was too far back and that’s just the way it happened. He took an extraordinary amount of dirt in his face, and he’s never been a really quick horse away from the gate. It may have been that it was his second race on the dirt; that may have caught him a little bit by surprise.”

There would be no surprises should Nehro or Mucho Macho Man jump up and win the Belmont. Zayat Stables’s Nehro (Mineshaft —The Administrator, by Afleet) passed on the Preakness while staying at Churchill Downs under the care of trainer Steve Asmussen. Prior to the Derby Nehro was second, beaten a neck, in both the Louisiana (gr. II) and Arkansas (gr. I) Derbys.

“We would have loved to run in the Preakness but our horses have generally run better with between four and six weeks off,” said Brad Weisbord, who represented Zayat at the draw. “We thought with only two weeks off to the Preakness, it would have been too quick to come back, so the timing here has hit us right in the head.

“We’ve have three seconds in the last three Derbys: Louisiana, Arkansas, and Kentucky, and we hope to finally shed the bridesmaid tag and get the win.”

Post 6 puts the colt right in the middle of the fray.

“Nehro is very versatile and he can be anywhere,” Weisbord said. “In Louisiana he was very close to the pace, in Arkansas he was far back, and in Kentucky he was closer, and I believe that was because of the slower pace.”

Mucho Macho Man, who races for Reeves Thoroughbred Racing and Dream Team Racing, endured a rough trip in the Preakness where he finished sixth.

“I don’t know if he was in love with the track,” said trainer Kathy Ritvo. “It was a different surface there and that didn’t help. He also got in some traffic, too. It was a little rougher for him and I don’t believe it was his right distance.”

Perhaps to mix things up, Team Mucho will make a rider switch from Rajiv Maragh to Ramon Dominguez for the Belmont.

“We just decided to make a change,” Ritvo said. “Rajiv is a very good rider and Ramon is a very good rider; we just decided to make a change.”

Mucho Macho Man has drawn raves from New York horsemen all week and apparently likes the sandy Belmont Park surface. He fired a bullet workout June 5, getting five furlongs in :59 2/5.

“He galloped 5 1/2 furlongs before he even went into that work,” Ritvo said. “I had him out in 1:12 and change and he galloped all the way around the racetrack. This is his hometown. He ran in the Remsen and Nashua last year when he was just 2 and he tore ‘em up and he chased To Honor and Serve in both races. He just flourishes here.”

Mucho Macho Man was second last year in both the one-mile Nashua Stakes (gr. II) and nine-furlong Remsen Stakes (gr. II). Both races were at Aqueduct.

Like the other trainers, Ritvo isn’t worried about the post.

“This horse has run from further out than 10, and he always breaks well, so he’s fine wherever he is,” she said.

Brilliant Speed and Stay Thirsty are Belmont-based horses looking to take advantage of being in their own backyard.

Brilliant Speed finished seventh in the Derby for Live Oak Plantation in his first start on dirt since a maiden effort at Saratoga last August. Trainer Tom Albertrani wasn’t unhappy with the effort and likes his pedigree—he’s a son of Dynaformer out of a Gone West mare—heading into the Belmont.

“We were really pleased with his Derby performance, he finished up well,” he said. “We think he’ll do even better here because of his pedigree. He handled the surface at Churchill well and he’s been training well here. He’s fresh. I’m pretty optimistic he’ll run well.”

Mike Repole’s Stay Thirsty has been in trainer Todd Pletcher’s New York barn since running 12th in the Derby. Home court advantage could move the son of Bernardini  up.

“Stay Thirsty likes it here,” Repole said. “He ran second here in his maiden. He won at Saratoga and was second in the Hopeful Stakes (gr. I). He won the Gotham (gr. III). Outside New York, he’s finished fifth, seventh, and 12th, so obviously he likes New York.”

There’s also plenty to like about this year’s Belmont, and there is plenty of optimism three days out before the Triple Crown's finale. Perhaps Lauffer wrapped up the morning’s festivities best by saying: “This is the first time any of these horses have run a mile and a half...and a mile and a quarter (Derby distance) is a tremendous distance in and of itself. These are big, strong horses; they can gallop a long way. I think it’s going to be a terrific race."

Belmont Stakes (gr. I)
Post Horse Jockey Trainer Odds
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 Jr. 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 Steve Asmussen 4-1
7. Monzon Jose Lezcano Ignacio Correas IV 30-1
8. Prime Cut Edgar Prado Neil Howard 15-1
9. Animal Kingdom  John Velazquez H. Graham Motion 2-1
10. Mucho Macho Man  Ramon Dominguez Kathy Ritvo 10-1
11. Isn't He Perfect Rajiv Maragh Doodnauth Shivmangal 30-1
12. Shackleford  Jesus Castanon Dale Romans 9-2

143rd renewal; Weights: 126 pounds. Distance: 1 1/2 miles. Purse: $1 million. First place: $600,000. Second place: $200,000. Third place: $110,000. Fourth place: $60,000. Fifth place: $30,000. Post time: 6:35 p.m. EDT.