By Susan Johnson
One thing you can say about all three Triple Crown races this year—in each race, as to the outcome, nobody saw it coming. In a third surprising upset, both Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and Preakness winner Shackleford got left out in the cold. Say hello to Ruler on Ice, the new champion.
Even as the 143rd Belmont Stakes got under way, there was trouble right from the starting gate. Animal Kingdom got squeezed between horses, was clipped by the hooves of Monzon, and nearly fell. Jockey John Velazquez had his foot knocked out of the left stirrup, lurched forward and was nearly toppled off the horse. For the first quarter mile, he struggled to hang onto his seat. By the time he had regained control, he didn’t have a fighting chance, although Animal Kingdom made an incredible run in the stretch, eventually finishing sixth behind Shackleford.
The Belmont has been called “the test of champions.” Perhaps the most surprising thing about this latest winner is that he didn’t have enough credits to qualify for the Derby. But he had enough earnings to be eligible for the Belmont, resulting in a three-quarter length victory over Stay Thirsty, his nearest competitor.
And once again, history was made. Only 21 times in the history of the Belmont have both the Derby and Preakness winners met in New York. Not only that, but this particular Belmont had all top seven Derby finishers in the lineup of 12 contenders. Owners, trainers and jockeys considered the possible problems of the sloppy track. Mucho Macho Man’s trainer, Kathy Ritvo, got him a new pair of specially-designed front shoes and a new jockey, Ramon Dominguez. It didn’t help. Nehro, who had been second in the Derby and skipped the Preakness to be rested for the Belmont, finished fourth. A new entry, Master of Hounds, considered a serious contender, mastered nothing on this day.
Jockey Jose Valdiva Jr., riding the temperamental winner, was absolutely exuberant, relishing his win on the 24-1 longshot. It was his first victory in a Triple Crown race. In fact, Ruler on Ice was so temperamental, he’d been gelded earlier as he was considered “nutty” enough to possibly cause an injury. Crazy or not, the behaviorally-challenged colt stuck it out on a muddy track for 1-1/2 miles and seemed no worse for wear at the end.
The horse that no handicapper gave a second thought paid $51.50, $26 and $13.60 on a $2 wager, the eighth highest in Belmont history. Stay Thirsty, who finished second, paid $19.40 and $10.80. Brilliant Speed paid $7.90 to show. The $2 exacta paid $928, the trifecta paid $8,268, and the superfecta paid $74,052.
Thankfully, no one was actually hurt, although Animal Kingdom and Velazquez had a near-miss. They can all go on with their careers, and as the saying goes, there’s always next year.
From the June 15-21, 2011 issue