Going into the Belmont, the chance of rain was really the only reason to like Ruler on Ice, whose previous career accomplishments can best be described as modest. He was disqualified from the Kentucky Derby because he did not have enough graded stakes earnings to make a 20-horse field already depleted by injuries. In not one of his six career races had he run fast enough to earn a Beyer Speed Figure-a weighted, standardized measure for how fast a horse runs a race-a big as the career-best Beyers of any of the Belmont's top contenders. And his pedigree was heavily weighted with middle-distance runners who were usually at their best going nine furlongs, rather than the Belmont's 12.
Perhaps the gelding's victory on Saturday is a sign of things to come. He could always return in the Haskell and the Travers later in the summer and validate his achievement at Belmont Park. But that would be a major surprise given his career accomplishments to date.
But as it turned out, that slow 2:02.04 was a red flag. Animal Kingdom's 104 Beyer for the Derby was also a relatively low 104. And in his narrow loss in the Preakness to Shackleford, the same scenario played out -- a slow time and a relatively low Beyer. There is reason to think Animal Kingdom could still be a champion, and might actually be a great horse, but right now, after his sixth-place finish on Saturday, he's a twice-beaten favorite (of both the Preakness and the Belmont) who is 0-for-1 against Ruler On Ice. And if Ruler on Ice isn't a champion, then neither is Animal Kingdom.
As I watched Animal Kingdom's disastrous break on Saturday -- the 5-2 favorite appeared to clip heels with one of his rivals after getting bumped by another at the start, falling forward and nearly unseating jockey John Velazquez -- I immediately thought of War Emblem. The Belmont is a long race, and running from behind is how Animal Kingdom prefers to run. Perhaps he would be able to recover where the impatient War Emblem could not.
But as he did in Baltimore three weeks ago, Animal Kingdom left himself with too much distance to make up. Velazquez didn't get his feet back in the stirrups immediately, and the pair fell far behind. Even on a track as vast as Belmont Park, it pays to stay within striking distance. Ruler On Ice stayed close, and was there to pick up the pieces as the leaders fell apart in the stretch. Animal Kingdom had to fight to even get close. He launched a credible bid around the turn for home, but was all out of run with it mattered most.
Shackleford, and not Animal Kingdom, was the most consistent performer of this Triple Crown season, and at the proper distances, might prove to be the very best of this bunch. It will be interesting to see if trainer Dale Romans gives him a shot at some of the big races later in the summer, especially the Travers at Saratoga.
It was a spring dominated by unknown horses and humans alike. In three different races, three different riders and trainers took their first bows on racing's biggest stage. Thoroughbred racing may be the Sport of Kings, but in 2011 at least, just this once, it was a game for everybody. Bravo.