Almost nobody had paid any attention to Ruler On Ice, who didn't even show up at Belmont Park until Saturday morning. He was training well at Monmouth Park, but so what? He'd never faced top 3-year-olds or run beyond 11/8 miles. In his previous race, he couldn't even win the Federico Tesio at Pimlico.
None of that mattered late Saturday afternoon, when Ruler On Ice became Monarch of the Muck in the 143rd Belmont Stakes. The 24-1 shot was strong all the way around the 1½-mile lap of North America's biggest track, with plenty of energy left to hold off 16-1 Stay Thirsty by three-quarters of a length.
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Maybe it was wearing blinkers for the first time. Maybe it was the sloppy track, because he was one of only two in the field of 12 to have won on off going. Whatever it was, Ruler On Ice humbled everyone but Stay Thirsty in his breakthrough performance for jockey Jose Valdivia Jr. before a damp crowd of 55,779.
His trainer, Jersey guy Kelly Breen, had considered Ruler On Ice an underachieving goofball.
"He's already a gelding, so we can't castrate him again,'' Breen said. "We were disappointed in the Tesio, but maybe it was a blessing in disguise. He wouldn't grow up. [Blinkers] were part of the maturity. Sometimes the bulb just goes on. It was a perfect storm of things going right, and that's how we got here.''
Like Breen, Valdivia never had competed in the Belmont. The 36-year-old Peruvian stalked patiently in second behind Preakness winner Shackleford through 6 furlongs in 1:14.51 and a mile in 1:39.95. Leaving the backstretch, the jockey's confidence was growing.
"We hit the far turn, and we had a half-mile to go,'' he said. "I was sitting and I had a lot of horse under me.''
Shackleford cracked in midstretch and faded to fifth while Ruler On Ice kept rolling. Stay Thirsty, after tracking on the rail in third under Javier Castellano, was his only serious threat. At the eighth pole, Ruler On Ice led him by a half-length and edged away in the final yards. Brilliant Speed was third, 1½ lengths farther back and 5¼ lengths ahead of Nehro. Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom was sixth after a scary beginning.
"[Stay Thirsty] ran a super race,'' trainer Todd Pletcher said of Mike Repole's colt. "We are very proud of him.''
Ruler On Ice paid $51.50 for his third win in seven starts. He earned $600,000, raising his bankroll to $766,500 for George and Lori Hall. George Hall is Long Island through and through, having grown up in Freeport and attended Chaminade and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.
"The funny thing about this horse is that Jose would always come back and say he was goofing off, but he wasn't really tired,'' George Hall said. "You could see after the race, he wanted to do another victory lap. I think he's a much better horse than the odds showed, and he proved it today."
A horrific start canceled Animal Kingdom's chance to be the 12th to hit the Derby-Belmont double. John Velazquez was fortunate to stay on after being bumped by Mucho Macho Man a few strides out of the gate.
"They came over and clipped heels and I almost came off,'' Velazquez said. "I had a horrible trip.''
The 5-2 favorite was far back in last before making a powerful wide move on the far turn and tiring. "No way he was going to make up that much ground. He's still a great horse.''
Among the other disappointments were Mucho Macho Man (seventh) and Irish shipper Master of Hounds (10th), who broke slowly from the rail and never got involved.
Surprisingly, Ruler On Ice ruled. "I started working the horse this winter,'' Valdivia said. "I told Kelly I liked him so much I was going to freeze my butt off working him every morning.
"He acts like he's something special, and I don't think we've gotten to the bottom of him yet. Turning for home, everything started going in slow motion. At the sixteenth pole, I thought, 'This is the true Test of the Champion.'
"It's a great feeling.''