ELMONT, N.Y. — A wild and unpredictable Triple Crown season came to an appropriately stunning conclusion Saturday as 24-1 long shot Ruler On Ice won the 143rd running of the Belmont Stakes.
Ruler On Ice, a gelding who didn't run in either the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness and was wearing blinkers for the first time, sat just off the lead for most of the race, and then jockey Jose Valdivia Jr. let him surge to the lead with 1/4 of a mile to go.
The temperamental but talented colt ran hard to the wire, holding off Stay Thirsty (second) and Brilliant Speed (third) to win by 1-3/4 lengths, giving Valdivia and trainer Kelly Breen their first win in a Triple Crown race. His $51.50 payout to win was the eighth highest in Belmont history.
Stay Thirsty paid $19.40 and $10.80. Brilliant Speed was $7.90 to show.
"At the half mile pole, I was hearing whips cracking behind me and I could hear guys chirping at their horses," said Valdivia, who learned how to race horses under his father while growing up in Peru. "I still felt like I had a lot of horse under me. Turning for home, everything started going in slow motion. At the 16th pole, I thought 'This is the true test of the champion.' "
Although most of the 55,779 in attendance at Belmont Park expected the race to unfold as a duel between Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and Preakness winner Shackleford, that matchup never materialized on a sloppy track and on a day where a dull gray fog hung in the air like wet cotton balls. Shackleford charged out to an early lead, but he faded considerably around the final turn and finished a disappointing fifth.
"We had it the way we wanted," said trainer Dale Romans. "He just didn't hang on."
Animal Kingdom was never a factor in the race, running in last most of the way before rallying to finish sixth.
But Animal Kingdom -- who trains at the Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md. -- had a pretty good excuse for his poor showing. He narrowly avoided a disaster coming out of the gate when he was squeezed by two horses just seconds into the race. He nearly fell after clipping hooves with Monzon, and jockey John Velazquez lurched forward, barely hanging on to his mount. His right foot came out of his stirrup, and for the first quarter mile, he was mostly just trying to hang on.
"The horse almost fell down," said Animal Kingdom trainer Graham Motion. "Johnny couldn't believe the horse stayed up. He lost his iron, and 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 his chance to run his race. I thought down the backside we didn't have any shot at all, and then he started to make an incredible move. But it was asking too much, too late."
Ruler On Ice -- who is owned by New Jersey residents George and Lori Hall, and named after their son's youth ice hockey prowess -- was happy to take advantage. Considered a fussy colt lacking focus and discipline for most of his racing career, his connections still didn't know what to expect from him even days prior to the race.
He had to be castrated back when he being broke because one of Breen's employees told him the horse was "so nutty, he was going to hurt someone." And this season, Breen gave him so many blood tests, trying to figured out why he seemed lethargic after workouts, the trainer joked that Ruler On Ice "probably lost a couple liters of blood" from the frequent check-ups. The horse also acted up so often, repeatedly kicking the walls in his barn, that Breen decided not to ship him from Monmoth Park to Belmont until the morning of the race.
"He wouldn't grow up," Breen said of the decision to put blinkers on his horse. "He didn't mature as fast as we wanted him to. He's already a gelding and we can't castrate him again, so we put blinkers on him. Sometimes, the bulb just goes on. It was the perfect storm of things going right."
Ruler On Ice's victory marked the third straight year that three different horses have won a leg of the Triple Crown, prompting the annual round of questions after the race about what it will take for horse racing to ever produce another thoroughbred who can win all three races.
"You have to have a super horse," Breen said. "But you also have to have a now horse, a horse that is peaking at the right time."
Although this was their first Grade I stakes victory, Breen and the Halls have turned out to be a fitting partnership with blue-collar roots. Breen grew up in the small town of Perth Amboy, N.ew Jersey., and but came from a family of steamfitters, not horse trainers. Through sheer will and hard work, he became the top-earning trainer at Monmoth Park. George Hall was the son of a New York City police officer and he grew up on Long Island, going to Belmont Park each week with his grandfather and younger brother.
"Catholic schools always let out early on Thursdays, so my grandfather would take us to the track and give us money for the day," Hall said. "My brother was practical, so he'd bet a nickel on the favorite to show in every race. I was a degenerate gambler, so by the seventh race, I'd be begging him to buy me a hot dog because I was broke."
Ruler On Ice still didn't calm down, even in victory. The horse refused several times to wear the blanket of flowers awarded to the winner, bucking and ducking his head. But that scene served as a fitting end to a strange Triple Crown season. Nothing, not even the post-race celebrations, went according to script.