NEW YORK --- Even without a Triple Crown on the line, the 143rd Belmont Stakes might 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 today, but the top seven finishers from the Derby for the first time as well.
"Why did everyone pick this year to come back?" said a smiling Graham Motion, who trains Animal Kingdom.
After watching his Derby winner gallop around the 1 1/2-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.
The matchup of a Derby winner against a Preakness winner in the 11/2-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 spectators, 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.
With one long lap around the only 1 1/2-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."
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.