NEW YORK -- The finish was dramatic, even without a Triple Crown on the line.
Creator found an opening in the stretch and ran down Destin in the final stride to win the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes by a nose, the closest possible margin of victory. Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. pointed to the sky in an appropriate winning salute, given the horse's name. Japan-based Lani was third.
"Today was perfect for us by inches," said trainer Steve Asmussen, who will be inducted into racing's Hall of Fame this summer at Saratoga. "Being the victor of the Belmont Stakes will look good on that plaque."
Asmussen, 50, has won more than 7,300 races, including the Preakness with champions Curlin in 2007 and Rachel Alexandra in 2009. He was taken off the Hall of Fame ballot last year, though, because of allegations made by PETA about the way he treated his horses. He was later cleared by racing authorities in Kentucky and New York.
A different horse won each leg of the Triple Crown this year, with Nyquist taking the Kentucky Derby and Exaggerator claiming the Preakness.Last year, American Pharoah became the first horse in 37 years to sweep the Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
This was Creator's day, a hot, sticky one at Belmont Park with temperatures in the mid-80s. Exaggerator, the 7-5 favorite in the field of 13, raced well back in the pack, appeared to make it into contention but just didn't have his usual finishing kick. He was 11th.
A 3-year-old gray colt, Creator came flying down the stretch as Destin tried to hang on to the lead. Destin almost made it but settled for second.
"I'm glad to see him put that number up; they came to the wire together," Asmussen said of the Creator-Destin showdown. "Irad gave him a dream trip. The horse ran super."
Creator returned $34.80 to win, and the winning time for the 1 miles was 2:28.51. The first three finishers were gray colts.
Governor Malibu was fourth, followed by Stradivari, Brody's Cause, Cherry Wine, Gettysburg, Suddenbreakingnews, Trojan Nation, Exaggerator, Seeking the Soul and Forever d'Oro.
Creator was one of several closers in the field, and the race set up perfectly for him. Gettysburg was a late addition to the field. Both horses are owned by WinStar Farm, with Gettysburg a front-runner who could set the stage for a thrilling finish.
That's exactly what happened. After setting a slowish pace, Gettysburg dropped back after a mile, and Destin took charge well into the stretch. With Ortiz urging him on, Creator stormed into contention after running near the back of the pack for his third win in 10 career starts. Ortiz, one of the nation's leading riders, won his first Triple Crown race.
"He was calm, and I just waited for somewhere to go," Ortiz said. "When he got clear, he started running."
Kent Desormeaux, the Hall of Fame rider aboard the colt, second-guessed his decision to ask Exaggerator to wait behind the pace. When Desormeaux tried to make a move, the horse trained by his brother, Keith, just didn't have it.
"I don't know if there would have been any difference in the outcome," Kent Desormeaux said. "When I picked him up at the quarter-pole to try and win the race, there was nothing there."
Exaggerator and Lani were the only horses who ran in all three Triple Crown races. Lani improved each time, running ninth in the Derby and fifth in the Preakness.
"He was in very good condition, and the distance was good," Lani's jockey, Yutaka Take, said.
Earlier in the week, celebrity chef Bobby Flay became a co-owner of Creator along with WinStar.
In five other Grade 1 races on the card:
-- Frosted ($6.70) ran the fastest Metropolitan Mile in the 123-year history of the race, blowing away the field for a 14-length victory and earning an automatic berth in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. Ridden by Joel Rosario, the 4-year-old gray colt stormed into the lead around the turn and widened his advantage with every stride. The winning time was 1:32.73, off the track record by nearly a half-second but faster than Tizway's Met Mile time of 1:32.90 in 2011.
-- Cavorting ($10.60) ran her way into an automatic berth in the BC Distaff by taking the $1 million Ogden Phipps by 2 lengths over Forever Unbridled. The 4-year-old filly is trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, who also trains Frosted. Favorite Curalina was fourth.
-- Flintshire ($3.40), a 6-year-old bred in England, made his first start of the year a winning one in the $1 million Manhattan for 4-year-olds and up on the turf.
-- Celestine ($17) took charge in the stretch to win the $700,000 Just A Game for 4-year-old-and-up fillies and mares on the turf.
-- Carina Mia ($6.10) edged past Kentucky Oaks winner Cathryn Sophia in the stretch and won the $700,000 Acorn for 3-year-old fillies.
-- Tom's Ready ($17.20) rebounded from a 12th-place finish in the Derby to win the Grade 2 $500,000 Woody Stephens.
-- Shaman Ghost ($9.60) won the $400,000 Brooklyn Invitational.
Creator catches Destin at wire to win Belmont; Exaggerator 11th