Written by Rich Forestano Friday, 17 June 2011 00:00
Over 55,779 fans watched and waited with great anticipation at last Saturday’s 143rd Belmont Stakes. They waited for the sun to shine; it didn’t. They waited for the mud to turn back to Belmont’s trademark dirt; it wouldn’t. But on a day where the impossible seemed implausible, it happened.
Last year, 13-1 underdog Drosselmeyer took the third leg of the Triple Crown and this year saw much of the same with 24-1 shot Ruler on Ice.
Ruler on Ice delivered a huge upset, plowing through the mud to a three-quarter-length victory over Stay Thirsty. Brilliant Speed came in to show.
Kentucky Derby Winner Animal Kingdom nearly fell out of the starting gate and Preakness winner Shackleford faded in the stretch run.
As expected, Shackleford led from the start but when the field of 12 turned for home in the 1½-mile Belmont, he tired in the muck as longshots Ruler On Ice and Stay Thirsty passed him by.
“Ruler wasn’t slowing down,” winning jockey Jose Valdivia Jr. said. “It was a great feeling the last sixteenth of a mile.”
Valdivia, in his first race at Belmont, detailed the last seconds of the race while galloping back to the Winner’s Circle.
“I’m a couple of yards from the wire and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my god, oh my god, I’m going to win the Belmont,’” he said.
The rubber match between Shackleford and Animal Kingdom never developed on the dreary, rainy day at Belmont Park. Shackleford finished fifth, while Animal Kingdom had a frightful start, never moved into contention and finished sixth.
“To be honest with you, when I got past the eighth pole, as I started seeing all the camera flashes, getting closer and closer to me, I just happened to take a little glance at the big screen TV and I saw Stay Thirsty coming up on the rail,” Valdivia said.
“The wire is going to come up on time for me. I still felt like Ruler wasn’t slowing down. He was maintaining his speed. It was just a great feeling that last 16th of a mile.”
Jockey John Velazquez almots fell off Animal Kingdom when 10-1 shot Mucho Macho Man bumped the horse on his right side just after the start. He somehow managed to get his left foot back into the stirrup, but by then it was too late. Animal Kingdom had dropped more than 13 lengths off the lead, and did well to finish in the middle of the pack.
“It was unbelievable,” Velazquez said. “They came over on me and clipped heels and I almost came off. I had a horrible trip. No way was he going to make up that much ground. He’s still a great horse.”
Shackleford’s trainer Dale Romans said before the race he expected his colt to break first and then see how far he can go. It wasn’t far enough.
“He had it his way,” Romans said. “We had it the way we wanted. He just didn’t hang on. We’re so proud of the way he performed. I was down, but I would never get too down running at this level of race.”
Ruler on Ice’s victory makes it three years in a row a different horse has won each of the Triple Crown races, and next year it will be a 33-year gap since Affirmed swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont in 1978. The win left Lori Hall, who owns Ruler On Ice with her husband George, shaking.
It was unbelievable,” she said. “I saw it happening. It was happening in slow motion. Everybody was do what they were supposed to do the way they had told them to doing it, the way we envisioned it happening. It was playing out the way we had discussed it. I think that in itself was unbelievable and I just remember there was a lot of screaming going on. I’m still shaking. It was amazing, because we really were the underdog and I couldn’t have dreamt it any better, but here we are.”
“From my standpoint, Ruler on Ice was always frustrating,” George Hall said. “I kept hearing about his ability and how much speed he had and he was still not mature enough to win races. You know, obviously, this is our first great one winner. This is our first great one, certainly our first Triple Crown winner. We still have high hopes for Pants on Fire, but this is our guy right now.”