Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom nearly fell at the start. Preakness winner Shackleford faded in the stretch. The Belmont Stakes was up for grabs.
And it was 24-1 long shot Ruler on Ice who delivered a huge upset Saturday in the final leg of the Triple Crown, splashing his way to a three-quarter length victory over Stay Thirsty.
As expected, Shackleford led from the start but when the field of 12 turned for home in the 1«-mile Belmont, he tired in the muck as long shots 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."
The much-hyped rubber match between Shackleford and Animal Kingdom never developed on a rainy day at Belmont Park. Shackleford finished fifth, while Animal Kingdom had a frightful start, never moved into contention and finished sixth.
Jockey John Velazquez nearly fell off Animal Kingdom when the horse was bumped on his right side by Mucho Macho Man 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.
"Mud didn't cost AK the Belmont," Irwin wrote. "At the break, Isn't He Perfect came over at the break, intimidated Mucho Macho Man, who slammed into Animal Kingdom so hard that our colt nearly went down. Our jockey lost his left iron, which was not corrected until the turn. We never had a chance. Isn't He Perfect had no business being in this race and he screwed it up for a lot of horses today. Classics are no place for amateurs."
An elated Valdivia, riding in his first Belmont, described the final seconds of the race while on the gallop 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.
A crowd of 55,779 turned out hoping to see a stretch showdown between Animal Kingdom and Shackleford - the first Derby vs. Preakness winners in the Belmont in six years. But that vanished once the Derby winner was knocked around in a bad bit of racing luck.
"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."
The Belmont has a history of surprise finishes, from spoiled Triple Crown attempts to stunning shockers. Only two favorites have won since Thunder Gulch in 1995, and long shots have been the norm. Last year, it was 13-1 Drosselmeyer, two years ago Summer Bird at 11-1, and three years ago Da' Tara at 38-1.
The win left Lori Hall, who owns Ruler On Ice with her husband George, shaking.
"It was amazing, because we really were the underdog," she said.
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.
Ruler On Ice, trained by New Jersey-based Kelly Breen, did not run in the first two legs of the Triple Crown. The 3-year-old didn't have enough graded stakes earnings to qualify for the Derby, but vindicated his trainer's faith by defeating a field that included the first seven finishers in the Run for the Roses. He became the second gelding, along with Creme Fraiche in 1985, to win the Belmont.
The winning time for the oldest and longest race in the Triple Crown was a slow 2:30.88.
While Shackleford and jockey Jesus Castenon shot to the lead from the outside No. 12 post, Ruler On Ice stalked him all the way around the track. Stay Thirsty and Brilliant Speed were close behind but they weren't going to catch Ruler On Ice once he took over with about an eighth-of-a-mile to go.
The $2 win payoff is the eighth highest in Belmont history. Sarava's $2 win payoff of $142.50 is the record.
Nehro, second in his last three races, including the Derby, was fourth, followed by Shackleford, Animal Kingdom, Mucho Macho Man, Santiva, Monzon, Master of Hounds, Prime Cut and Isn't He Perfect.
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."