When a horse wins or runs well in a Kentucky Derby prep race, the natural thing is for its connections to think of roses. They think of red ones, specifically, those sewn into a glorious blanket, handed to the victorious jockey in bouquets that weigh more than him, petals scattering around Churchill Downs like confetti, and a return to the postrace interview room after racing's greatest moment.
If you don't win or run in the Derby, the next plan is the Preakness Stakes, two weeks down the road at Pimlico Race Course in Maryland. They have black-eyed susans there (dyed daisies, actually, because real black-eyed susans don't bloom in May). If you don't win or run in the Preakness, well, there's always the Belmont Stakes and a blanket of white carnations.
Saturday, in the slop, having run in neither of the previous Triple Crown events, having not even won since a Feb. 22 allowance score at Parx Racing and Casino, George and Lori Hall's Ruler On Ice staged a Belmont Stakes upset at odds of 24-1. He was the only horse in the field of 12 to have previously won on a sloppy track and was the third chestnut to win one of the Triple Crown races this year.
The victory came together thanks to a brilliant ride, a brutal twist of fate, the clever strategy of a trainer who knew where to best place his runner, and, of course, a bit of racing luck. As jockey Jose Valdiva Jr. hustled his mount up straight after the break, Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom lost all chance when he clipped heels under jockey John Velazquez. While Ruler On Ice settled into the perfect stalking position right off the pace set by front-running Preakness victor Shackleford, Animal Kingdom was last in the field of 12.
"He broke OK, but a horse on the outside came in and we clipped heels," Velazquez said. "I almost came off my horse; I tried to put my feet back into the irons and dropped so far back that I lost all chance. In the first turn, I knew I was done there was way too much to do."
As the field turned for home, Animal Kingdom flattened out to sixth and Shackleford faded to fifth while Stay Thirsty and Brilliant Speed came with late runs. Valdivia had just enough left with Ruler On Ice to kick in, holding off Stay Thirsty by three-quarters of a length and third-place Brilliant Speed to the tune of a $51.50 payoff. Not bad for a horse who originally was part of his trainer's "B" string.
At the beginning of the season, 42-year-old Kelly Breen was juggling what looked like a hot hand of 3-year-old talent for the Halls. As their private trainer, the New Jersey native doesn't have to worry about conflicts of interest between multiple owners -- he just picks the best spots for the horses, gets them ready and lets them run. So, Breen sold promising Holy Bull Stakes runner-up Sweet Ducky to the president of Chechnya and juggled Pants On Fire and Nacho Business between stakes races at Fair Grounds, which is where he mentioned this runner he'd been trying to figure out down in Florida. He couldn't decide whether to put blinkers on, leave blinkers off, send him here, send him there. The horse was taking awhile to mature, Breen said, but he had enough talent to succeed on the Triple Crown trail if they could just get him in a spot to get in on the action.
Breen wound up starting Ruler On Ice in New Mexico, and one day after Pants On Fire won the March 26 Louisiana Derby to give the trainer the biggest win of his career, this son of Roman Ruler ran third in the Grade 3 Sunland Derby. He hadn't earned enough to make the Kentucky Derby field, so, on May 7, Ruler On Ice was entered in Pimlico's ungraded Federico Tesio Stakes. There, the gelding ran a not-so-impressive second by two lengths behind Concealed Identity, a result that left his connections less than confident.
"We were disappointed in the Tesio because we were looking at the Preakness, but maybe it was a blessing in disguise," Breen said after the Belmont. "After the Tesio, I thought he came back from the race somewhat lethargic. All of the sudden the last two weeks, his red blood count was starting to come up, and this week, he had the best blood report he's had in the past few months, so I said, 'It's a go.' Going into the race, we felt his blood had to be better for us to run."
There was a great gate work last week under Valdivia, another positive sign, given the gelding's previous tendencies to "goof off," as his trainer described it. Finally, the addition of blinkers helped with focus. It was, Breen said, "the perfect storm of things going right."
Breen knew his horse, who broke his maiden in October 2010 on a sloppy track at Delaware Park, was equipped with vital tactical speed and had a shot in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont.
"Coming into the race, I said, 'I've watched the last dozen Belmonts, and horses that have been in the top four win it,'" Breen remarked. "I said, 'That's what I want you to do,' and that's what Jose did."
For Valdivia, 36, a perfectly executed ride led to victory in his Belmont Stakes debut. The jockey, overcome with exhilaration after his score, thanked the connections for the opportunity because "to win the race, you have to be a part of it; you can't win if you're sitting in the jockeys' room."
"We hit the far turn and still had half a mile to go, and a lot of the guys were smooching and starting to ride, but I'm sitting there feeling like I have a lot of horse beneath me," he said. "You get into this moment where everything stops, and I'm a couple yards for the wire, I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, oh my God, I'm going to win the Belmont!"
Valdivia, who has been aboard Ruler On Ice in five of the gelding's seven starts, said he thinks the chestnut will have more to show down the road as this 3-year-old season continues.
"I started working this horse this winter," he said. "I told Kelly that I liked him so much, I was going to freeze my butt off to come and work him every morning. He acts like he's something special, and I don't think we've gotten to the bottom of him yet."
*Note: A crowd of 55,779 came to watch the Belmont Stakes, the largest tally since 94,476 in 2008. Attendance was up from last year's 45,243 despite the inclement weather and the lack of a Triple Crown contender.
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.