Ruler On Ice, dismissed at 24-1, sat a perfect trip under a patient Jose Valdivia, Jr., taking the lead at the top of the stretch and holding off another longshot, Stay Thirsty, to win Saturday’s 143rd running of the Grade 1, $1 million Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park.
Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, the 5-2 favorite, fell back to last shortly after the start when he clipped heels with Mucho Macho Man, who was bumped by Isn’t He Perfect. Under jockey John Velazquez, who lost his left stirrup and didn’t regain it until the first turn, Animal Kingdom made a gallant run to gain third on the far turn, but couldn’t sustain his bid and finished sixth in the third and final leg of racing’s Triple Crown.
With Preakness winner Shackleford setting moderate fractions of 23.92, 49.08, 1:14.51, 1:39.95 and 2:05.09, Valdivia bided his time and didn’t ask Ruler On Ice for run until the field straightened for home. The gelding, running with blinkers for the first time, eagerly began picking up the pace and struck the lead approaching the eighth pole, going on to a three-quarter length victory over Stay Thirsty and completing the 1 ½ miles in 2:30.88 over the sloppy, sealed main track.
The win, Ruler On Ice’s first in a stakes race, made him only the second gelding ever to win the Belmont, joining 1985 winner Creme Fraiche.
“[Trainer Kelly Breen] said, ‘We’ve got the blinkers on him and it didn’t look like there was that much speed in there, so put him into the race and just hope for the best,” said Valdivia, 36, who was making his first start in the Belmont Stakes. “At the half-mile pole, I was hearing whips cracking behind me and I could hear guys chirping to their horses and all I’m doing is picking up the tempo.”
Stay Thirsty, the winner of the Grade 3 Gotham who went off at 16-1, was forwardly placed throughout and closed well to finish second, 1 ½ lengths in front of 10-1 shot Brilliant Speed.
The anticipated rematch between the winners of the Derby and Preakness never materialized, as Shackleford faded to finish fifth, 1 ½ lengths ahead of Animal Kingdom.
“The horse almost fell down,” said Graham Motion, trainer of the beaten favorite, who was bidding to become the first Derby winner to take the Belmont since Thunder Gulch in 1995. “Johnny couldn’t believe the horse stayed up. He lost his iron. It took him until halfway around the turn to get his foot back in the iron. It’s really disappointing. It’s disappointing not to give the horse a chance to run his race. I thought down the backside we didn’t have any shot at all, and then he started to make that incredible move. But it was asking too much too late.”
Trainer Dale Romans was not disappointed in Shackleford, who was trying to join 10 other Preakness winners who completed the Preakness-Belmont double.
“He did everything he was supposed to do and didn't hang on,” said Romans. “We’re so proud of the way he performed. I was down, but I would never get too down running in this level of race.”
The “immature” Ruler On Ice, who didn’t make his first start until September 19, finishing fifth, broke his maiden in his second and final start of 2010. Finishing second in an optional claimer at Aqueduct Racetrack in his 2011 debut, Ruler On Ice then won an allowance at Parx Racing on February 22, finished third in the Grade 3 Sunland Derby on March 27 and was then second as the favorite in the Federico Tesio at Pimlico on Kentucky Derby day.
“He wouldn’t grow up,” said Breen, who trains Ruler On Ice for George and Lori Hall, all newcomers to the Belmont. “We were trying to see if with time he would mature without having to put blinkers on him. We were disappointed in the Tesio because we were looking at the Preakness, but maybe it was a blessing in disguise. Ever since he ran at Sunland Park, he came back with low red blood count and it showed in the stall and it showed in the feed tub. It took a little time to get back to normal.
“This week, he had the best blood report he’s had in the past few months, so I said, ‘It’s a go’,” he added. “[Blinkers] was part of the maturity. He didn’t mature as fast as we wanted to. He’s already a gelding so we can’t castrate him again, so we put blinkers on. The first time out of the gate, Jose was on him. He was still goofing off and didn’t break great. Last week, he broke right and it’s like sometimes, the bulb just goes on. It was a perfect storm of things going right, and that’s how we got here.”
Ruler On Ice, who earned $600,000 for the victory, returned $51.50 for a $2 win bet as he improved his record to 3-2-1 from seven starts.
Repole Stable’s Stay Thirsty, who finished 12th in the Kentucky Derby and skipped the Preakness, had the best finish of any of the eight Derby starters in the Belmont.
“The way the race developed, Shackleford took the lead and the winner was second or third and we tried to stay with him,” said jockey Javier Castellano. “My horse responded so well today. I was very happy for him. He gave everything he had today. I couldn’t ask anything more from him.”
Brilliant Speed, who was seventh in the Derby and also bypassed the Preakness, made a solid run from ninth to finish 1 ½ lengths behind Stay Thirsty.
“He ran very well,” said Tom Albertani, who trains Brilliant Speed for Live Oak Plantation. “It looked like he had it at the eighth pole. I thought he was going to keep coming with that run.”