ELMONT, N.Y. -- Summer Bird has played the underdog's role so well this summer that trainer Tim Ice wouldn't mind if his horse were to be overlooked again Saturday when he runs in the Grade 1, $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park.
Sorry, Tim. Summer Bird's victories in the Belmont Stakes and Travers this summer - and even his second to superstar filly Rachel Alexandra in the Haskell Invitational - figure to put him in the favorite's role against fellow 3-year-old Quality Road and five older horses in Saturday's 91st Gold Cup.
"It feels good to finally get a little respect," Ice said Thursday morning outside his barn. "But we don't look at it any differently. When we were here for the Belmont, I went into it like we were the favorite. I have a lot of confidence in my horse."
In the five weeks since his 3 1/2-length romp in the slop in the Travers at Saratoga, Summer Bird has done little to deter Ice's confidence. Summer Bird has breezed exceptionally well the last two weeks, his chestnut coat glows like a copper penny, and he's eating so much that Ice has had to increase the colt's daily feed.
"He's made me feel a lot better," Ice said. "He's coming into this race, I feel, better than any race, and that's a very good feeling, given what he's done. He came out of the Travers better than any of his races, and that means a lot to me."
The Jockey Club Gold Cup is one of five Grade 1 events on an 11-race card at Belmont Park that begins at 12:30 p.m. The card also features top male turf horse Gio Ponti seeking his fifth consecutive Grade 1 victory in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational, Dynaforce going for a repeat in the Flower Bowl Invitational, and Fabulous Strike trying to emulate his 2007 victory in the Vosburgh. Music Note looks like a standout in the Beldame for older fillies and mares. The Vosburgh, Flower Bowl, Joe Hirsch and Jockey Club make up an all-stakes pick four with a guaranteed pool of $500,000.
A forecast that calls for rain beginning Friday night and lasting into Saturday could make for a wet main track. That could only add to Ice's confidence, as does Summer Bird's versatile running style. Summer Bird drew post 3, inside of the other speed horses, Tizway (post 4), a newly blinkered Asiatic Boy (post 5), and Quality Road (post 7).
Summer Bird is trying to become the first 3-year-old since Easy Goer in 1989 to win the Belmont, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup in the same year. To do it, he will have to again defeat Quality Road, the Florida Derby winner who was the 3-2 favorite in the Travers, as well as Macho Again and Dry Martini, two older horses who have won major graded stakes this year.
"I think Quality Road has a lot to prove against Summer Bird, not the other way around," Ice said earlier this week in a national conference call.
Quality Road, who missed the classics because of chronic quarter cracks, entered the Travers with only one 6 1/2-furlong race under his belt in six months. In the Travers, run over a wet track, he broke a little slowly and was kept in behind horses by John Velazquez, who said the horse didn't seem to care for the off going.
"Coming to the three-eighths pole, he didn't stop, but he didn't give me any kick, he just kind of was one-paced," Velazquez said. "I just think he didn't completely like the track a hundred percent."
Macho Again enters the Jockey Club Gold Cup coming off three strong races. He won the Grade 1 Stephen Foster at Churchill in June before finishing second to Bullsbay in the Whitney and then coming within a head of Rachel Alexandra in the Woodward on Sept. 5 at Saratoga. Dallas Stewart, the trainer of Macho Again, said his horse continues to move forward, and he comes into the Gold Cup liking his chances.
"I think I got the horse to beat," Stewart said Thursday morning from Kentucky. "The main thing as far as I'm concerned is I'm very happy with how he's doing. He came out of the race in good shape, and he looks like he's at the top of his game."
Moisture in the track wouldn't hurt Macho Again, who won the 2008 Jim Dandy and this year's New Orleans Handicap in his only two starts on off tracks.
Dry Martini can handle an off track, too, but his victory in the Grade 2 Suburban Handicap here on July 4 was on dry ground. He took advantage of a solid early pace and came with a late run to beat Asiatic Boy and Rising Moon. Rising Moon came back to win an overnight stakes here on Wednesday.
"We know he likes this track," said Barclay Tagg, the trainer of Dry Martini. "If they're doing well and they're comfortable on a particular racetrack it can be an edge for them."
Sette E Mezzo, who finished third in the Bernard Baruch on turf last out, tries dirt for the first time since he finished third in his career debut in March 2008.
* The New York Racing Association will produce a 90-minute show on MSG-Plus that will show the Gold Cup, Joe Hirsch, and Flower Bowl live as well as the Beldame and Vosburgh on tape. All five stakes can be seen live on TVG and HRTV.