What learned from the Belmont
Ruler On Ice's surprise win can be attributed to, among other things, the weather
Animal Kingdom's bad start reminded me of War Emblem here just ten years ago
As it turned out, each race of the '11 Triple Crown series was uniquely compelling
Here are five things we learned from Saturday's 143rd running of the Belmont Stakes:
1. The Belmont is called the Test of the Champion, but that doesn't mean a champion won it Saturday. Ruler On Ice, a chestnut gelding with just two career victories in six starts paid a whopping $51.50 for the win. His victory, the first in a Triple Crown event for trainer Kelly Breen and jockey Jose Valdivia, was both surprising and emotional. It was also due in large part to two factors: race favorite Animal Kingdom's awful start (more on that in a moment), and the dreary New York weather. Ruler On Ice was one of only two horses in the race to have triumphed before over a wet track, and he clearly liked the Belmont slop.
Going into the Belmont, the chance of rain was really the only reason to like Ruler on Ice, whose previous career accomplishments can best be described as modest. He was disqualified from the Kentucky Derby because he did not have enough graded stakes earnings to make a 20-horse field already depleted by injuries. In not one of his six career races had he run fast enough to earn a Beyer Speed Figure-a weighted, standardized measure for how fast a horse runs a race-a big as the career-best Beyers of any of the Belmont's top contenders. And his pedigree was heavily weighted with middle-distance runners who were usually at their best going nine furlongs, rather than the Belmont's 12.
Perhaps the gelding's victory on Saturday is a sign of things to come. He could always return in the Haskell and the Travers later in the summer and validate his achievement at Belmont Park. But that would be a major surprise given his career accomplishments to date.
2. This year's crop of 3-year-olds seems to be just as mediocre as everybody thought before the Derby. There was a moment after Animal Kingdom's commanding triumph at Churchill Downs on May 7 when the racing world stepped back and took a second look at what had until then been regarded as a seriously underachieving band of Derby contenders. Trained by a thorough-going, traditional horseman, ridden by one of the best jockeys in the business and with bloodlines that seemed to fit the distances required in the Triple Crown, Animal Kingdom seemed like a potential breakout star. Sure he had started slow in Louisville, and his overall time had not been fast, but he had easily inhaled the leaders in the homestretch and seemed prime for a run at history.
But as it turned out, that slow 2:02.04 was a red flag. Animal Kingdom's 104 Beyer for the Derby was also a relatively low 104. And in his narrow loss in the Preakness to Shackleford, the same scenario played out -- a slow time and a relatively low Beyer. There is reason to think Animal Kingdom could still be a champion, and might actually be a great horse, but right now, after his sixth-place finish on Saturday, he's a twice-beaten favorite (of both the Preakness and the Belmont) who is 0-for-1 against Ruler On Ice. And if Ruler on Ice isn't a champion, then neither is Animal Kingdom.
3. This race was probably lost at the start. Ten years ago, I stood along the Belmont rail and watched War Emblem attempt to sweep the Triple Crown. A fast, headstrong front-runner, the ornery bay colt liked to grab a race by the throat early and run his opponents into the ground. But in the Belmont, War Emblem stumbled badly breaking from the gate, almost going to his knees, and essentially lost the race right there. Forced to exert himself early while fighting through the field, he was never able to come up with his usual, arrogant finishing kick. Instead of showing the field his muddy hooves, he took dirt in his face and came up hollow as a gourd as the field turned for home.
As I watched Animal Kingdom's disastrous break on Saturday -- the 5-2 favorite appeared to clip heels with one of his rivals after getting bumped by another at the start, falling forward and nearly unseating jockey John Velazquez -- I immediately thought of War Emblem. The Belmont is a long race, and running from behind is how Animal Kingdom prefers to run. Perhaps he would be able to recover where the impatient War Emblem could not.
But as he did in Baltimore three weeks ago, Animal Kingdom left himself with too much distance to make up. Velazquez didn't get his feet back in the stirrups immediately, and the pair fell far behind. Even on a track as vast as Belmont Park, it pays to stay within striking distance. Ruler On Ice stayed close, and was there to pick up the pieces as the leaders fell apart in the stretch. Animal Kingdom had to fight to even get close. He launched a credible bid around the turn for home, but was all out of run with it mattered most.
4. Shackleford is a fine horse, but the Belmont was too much. As he did in Kentucky, where he finished second, and Baltimore, where he finished first, Shackleford grabbed the early lead in the Belmont and held it through fast fractions, then hung tough in the end. But unlike the previous two legs of the Triple Crown, he was unable to finish in the top two because of the extra distance, though his fifth-place showing was good for some money -- a not-too-shabby $30,000.
Shackleford, and not Animal Kingdom, was the most consistent performer of this Triple Crown season, and at the proper distances, might prove to be the very best of this bunch. It will be interesting to see if trainer Dale Romans gives him a shot at some of the big races later in the summer, especially the Travers at Saratoga.
5. For all the complaints, this was actually a fun Triple Crown campaign. I realize I have spent most of the preceding paragraphs knocking, in one way or another, each winner in the 2011 Triple Crown series. That is not to say that we should not celebrate this year's Derby, Preakness and Belmont champions. Every race was uniquely compelling. There was Animal Kingdom's surprise win in the Derby, which cemented him as the horse to beat for the rest of the spring. There was Shackleford's vindicating win in the Preakness, a race that everybody told trainer Dale Romans he should skip-good for him for ignoring them all. And finally, there was Ruler On Ice's upset triumph in the Belmont on Saturday, a victory that brought jockey Jose Valdivia to tears. It was supposed to be the rubber-match between the Derby and Preakness winners, it ended as a career capstone for Valdivia and trainer Kelly Breen, neither of whom had ever won a Triple Crown race.
It was a spring dominated by unknown horses and humans alike. In three different races, three different riders and trainers took their first bows on racing's biggest stage. Thoroughbred racing may be the Sport of Kings, but in 2011 at least, just this once, it was a game for everybody. Bravo.