For those who tuned in to Saturday's Belmont Stakes hoping for a little clarity to emerge from this year's classic crop of 3-year-olds, all one got was a verdict as clear as the sticky, gooey slop 12 colts and geldings slogged through over one lap of Belmont Park's 1 1/2-mile oval.
The Belmont, often a war of attrition as only a relatively small quantity of Thoroughbreds produced in America each year are truly bred to relish the 12-furlong distance on dirt, proved even more so over a track made tiring by soaking day-long rains.
Ruler On Ice did not possess the kind of pedigree one looks for in a potential Belmont winner, being a son of the talented but distance-limited Roman Ruler. Nor had he established much in the way of back class before Saturday's race.
Indeed, while the leading lights of his generation were contesting the Kentucky Derby on May 7, Ruler on Ice was at Pimlico running second in the Federico Tesio Stakes, a nominal $65,000 prep for that track's Preakness Stakes two weeks later. Suffice it to say Ruler On Ice did not return to Old Hilltop for the second jewel of the Triple Crown.
However, Ruler On Ice was in the right place at the right time at all points of Saturday's Belmont. Not only was he the only Belmont contestant with prior winning experience on a sloppy track, Ruler On Ice was outfitted with blinkers for the first time by trainer Kelly Breen in the hopes he would show more early speed. Ruler On Ice did just that for jockey Jose Valdivia Jr., who positioned the gelding in second outside speedy Preakness winner Shackleford.
Over a track that was favoring horses racing on or near the lead all day, Ruler On Ice was enjoying a perfect trip. Ahead of him was a Shackleford, whose potential distance limitations were exposed earlier in the Triple Crown trail when he failed to stay the 1 1/4 miles of the Kentucky Derby despite setting a slow pace. Behind Ruler On Ice were a host of major contenders enduring trips of varying degrees of bad, ranging from less-than-ideal to truly awful.
Animal Kingdom, the Kentucky Derby hero and 5-2 favorite for the Belmont, saw his chances at victory virtually end several strides out of the starting gate. Clipping heels with Mucho Macho Man, Animal Kingdom stumbled and nearly unseated jockey John Velazquez. The field nearly reached the first turn before Velazquez was able to get his left boot back in its iron, and by that time the strapping chestnut was dead last and farther off the pace than desired. Not only was this not the place to be over this track on this day, but this was a similar predicament that arguably cost him a win in the Preakness three weeks earlier.
Despite making what appeared to many a potential miraculous recovery to reach contention around the far turn, Velazquez admitted after the race he knew Animal Kingdom had nothing left to fight with long before that, perhaps as early as the moments following the clipping of heels. The evidence was laid bare in the final furlong as Animal Kingdom, who had worked himself up to fifth, practically shut down and allowed Nehro to rally past him on his way to fourth money.
One colt who stayed out of trouble and more or less in the clear was Brilliant Speed. Primarily a turf horse, Brilliant Speed saw his pre-race chances improve with the development of a wet track. However, he was done no favors when kept roughly four-wide throughout the long run down the backstretch. That strategy ultimately backfired when the real running counted.
Turning into the homestretch, with Ruler On Ice closing in on an obviously tired Shackleford, the game was up for the Preakness winner. He simply was not going to stay the 1 1/2 miles. Ruler On Ice took a slight advantage a furlong out, with Brilliant Speed ranging on the outside, poised to take over with any sort of closing kick. However, Brilliant Speed could not get past the feisty Ruler On Ice, and simply ran out of energy after taking the overland route.
Ruler On Ice had one last challenge, from the rail-skimming Stay Thirsty, who had raced in close attendance to the leaders in third before dropping back to fourth approaching the final bend. Another who enjoyed an ideal trip given the conditions, Stay Thirsty tried hard but failed to make any significant ground on the eventual winner in the final yards. While the winning margin was three-quarters of a length, Ruler On Ice was pretty much holding the runner-up safely at the end.
Ruler On Ice was the right horse for the conditions and had the right trip in this edition of the "Test of the Champion." Meanwhile, the search for a divisional leader, much less a champion, continues.