Air quotes aren’t ever necessary to describe the “clean ride” by Ruler On Ice jockey Jose Valdivia Jr. in yesterday’s Belmont Stakes.
After navigating the 24-1 long shot around Big Muddy’s one and a half miles, outrunning Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, Preakness champ Shackleford and nine other thoroughbreds, Valdivia was offered a towel but noted, “I stayed pretty clean, though, huh?”
Only one horse — the expected pacesetter Shackleford — beat Valdivia and Ruler On Ice out of the gate. While the track’s muck was thrown back on the field, dirtying horses and jocks, Ruler On Ice sat with a clear view, perched just outside Shackleford right through to the stretch, then surged to victory.
“I was watching the races and it seemed like the speed was actually pretty good” on the sloppy surface, Valdivia said. “Not many horses were making up ground on the rail. So what we had talked about was to put him into the race and let it play as it comes.”
Ruler On Ice, described by both owner George Hall and trainer Kelly Breen as immature, was running with blinkers for the first time. But, among the attempts to “make him happy,” Breen said of Ruler On Ice’s preference to travel in his own trailer and stay in his own barn, was to “keep Jose on him. He likes Jose.”
“I started working with this horse this winter,” said Valdivia, a 36-year-old native of Peru riding in his first Belmont. “I remember telling Kelly, ‘I like this horse so much, I’m going to freeze my butt off to be on him every morning.’ He acts like he’s something special, always like he’s got something left.”
In a sport that emphasizes bloodlines, Valdivia noted: “I was born into racing, I think. My whole family was in horse racing.” An uncle, Juan Suarez, is a trainer. Another uncle, Fernando Toro, is a retired jockey who rode in southern California and won the first Breeders’ Cup Mile turf event. “Kelly said, ‘We’ll put the blinkers on him and put him into the race and just go for the best,’ ” Valdivia said. “At the half-mile pole, I started hearing some whips cracking behind me, guys started chipping. But all along, I was just sitting. And at the 16th pole, I thought, ‘Wow.’
“He started picking up the pace. And everything started going in very slow motion. Just unbelievable. Great feeling, nothing like it. When I got past the eighth pole and I started seeing all the camera flashes getting closer and closer, I just happened to take a glance at the big-screen TV, and I saw Stay Thirsty coming up on the rail. But Ruler wasn’t slowing down.
“Bottom line, there’s nothing like this. I started my career here in New York, I’m a New York resident. And this is the true test of a champion.”
A club to which Valdivia now belongs.