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 today, 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 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, 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.