BELMONT, N.Y. -- The Belmont Stakes was a fitting conclusion to this most bizarre of Triple Crown seasons. Horses that paid $52.40, $40.20, $19.40, $12.60 and $29.80 won the final five major Kentucky Derby preps. The favorite did not win any of the last 10 graded Derby preps. So why would the Derby, Preakness and Belmont be different?
Animal Kingdom won the Derby at 20-1; Shackleford won the Preakness at 12-1. Both were in the starting gate at Belmont Park early Saturday evening. Shackleford came out fast, but could not last. Animal Kingdom was hit on his right side out of the gate and pushed to his left behind longshot Monzon, causing the Derby winner to stumble badly and nearly lose jockey John Velazquez. On a sloppy, sealed track where hardly any horses made up any ground, the Derby winner was essentially eliminated in the first few yards of the mile-and-a-half race.
So, 24-1 Ruler On Ice, a gelding whose last win came at Parx Racing on Feb. 22, ran the race of his life, held off the inside bid of 16-1 Stay Thirsty and the outside run of 10-1 Brilliant Speed, and won the Belmont by three-quarters-of-a-length, running the distance in two minutes, 30.88 seconds.
Trained at Monmouth Park by Kelly Breen for Jersey residents George and Lori Hall, Ruler On Ice was actually entered in the Derby, but was excluded for insufficient earnings.
So, the horse ran in the Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico on Derby Day. Ruler On Ice finished second to Concealed Identity who came back to run 10th in the Preakness.
Ruler On Ice finished third in the Sunland Derby. The winner, Twice The Appeal, finished 10th in the Kentucky Derby. Ruler On Ice beat Sir Cadian at Parx in February. That horse most recently finished second in a Pennsylvania-bred allowance at Penn National at 2-5.
A deeper examination of Ruler On Ice's history did not reveal the clue that would have solved this Belmont mystery. You really needed to be close to the story and have belief despite the evidence.
"The funny thing about this horse is that (jockey) Jose (Valdivia) would always come back and say he was goofing off, but he wasn't really tired," George Hall said. "After the Tesio, we figured, what better race to come back than the Belmont. Jose did exactly what we asked him to do and stayed close to the lead. 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."
Perhaps it was the slop. Or blinkers.
Maybe, the horse just grew up.
"He didn't mature as fast as we wanted to," Breen said. "He's already a gelding so we can't castrate him again, so we put blinkers on."
Seemed like a more reasonable tactic.
Ruler On Ice stalked Shackleford through tepid fractions. The Preakness winner was done at the top of the stretch and finished fifth.
"We had it the way we wanted," Shackleford's trainer Dale Romans said. "He just didn't hang on. It's still wide open for a champion three-year-old."
It is, indeed. Animal Kingdom with his Derby win and a fast-closing second in the Preakness, is the leader at the moment. Unfortunately, after that disastrous start, the colt was way last early in the Belmont. Velazquez' left foot came out of his iron and it took him until the first turn to get it back in there.
"The horse almost fell down," Animal Kingdom's trainer Graham Motion said. "Johnny couldn't believe the horse stayed up ... It's disappointing not to give the horse a chance to run his race. I thought down the backside we didn't have any shot at all, and then he started to make that incredible move. But it was asking too much too late."
Animal Kingdom flew around the far turn, passing horses like they were standing still. But it was too much to ask on a track where speed was not coming back. The Derby winner hit the wall in the stretch, finishing sixth.
"I was asking him for run way too much to be where I was from the half-mile pole to the quarter pole," Velazquez said. "At that point, I was just hoping to get a piece of it and that's why I rode him that way after the start. No way he was going to make up that much ground. He's still a great horse."
Actually, there are no great horses in this group. If there were, a favorite would win on occasion. Animal Kingdom looks like the best. The big picture, however, will be revealed over the next few months.
In January, Ruler On Ice may have been Breen's fourth best Triple Crown prospect. Now, like Motion and Romans, the trainer has his first Triple Crown race winner.
"We hit the far turn, and we had a half-mile to go," Valdivia said. "I was sitting and I had a lot of horse underneath me. I looked up at the wire and was like, 'Oh my God, I'm going to win the Belmont Stakes.' "
Of course he was. In 2011, why wouldn't Ruler On Ice, a horse that has raced seven times at seven different tracks with his only previous wins at Parx and Delaware Park, win the Belmont?
George Hall is a hedge fund manager. Perhaps he can take the $600,000 from the Belmont and join in the purchase of the Sixers. Or at least bring Ruler On Ice back to the state in September for the Pennsylvania Derby at Parx. Can't imagine anybody thought they were seeing the Belmont winner that February day in Bensalem.
A somewhat amazing 55,779 appeared at the track amid the gloom. Bettors around the country fired in $81.2 million on the card. Understandably, and fitting with the TC theme, nobody could solve the Pick 6, after winners that were 10-1, 6-5, 4-1, 12-1, 21-1 and 24-1. Wednesday's Belmont card will feature a $1.13 million carryover.
At least, the players won't have to worry about trying to figure out which longshot is going to win a Triple Crown race.