Just before the finish of the Belmont Stakes, it hit Jose Valdivia Jr.
“A couple of strides from the wire I thought to myself ‘Oh my god, I’m going to win the Belmont.’”
The 37-year-old rider, who has ridden on New York’s and Southern California’s circuits for 17 years but remained known only to the horseplayers who play those tracks, had never even had a mount in the race before. But on Saturday, he rode 24-1 outsider Ruler On Ice to victory to secure his spot in triple crown history.
In a bit of irony, the Belmont featured the first seven finishers from the May 7 Kentucky Derby. Ruler On Ice was entered in the Derby but did not run because he did not have enough graded earnings to get into the field.
The 1 1/2-mile race featured a lot of drama just after the break. Preakness winner Shackleford expectedly went to the lead but near the back of the pack, jockey John Velazquez nearly fell off Derby winner Animal Kingdom when they clipped heels with another runner. Velazquez stayed on but Animal Kingdom ended sixth.
Ruler On Ice raced for the first mile just to the outside of Shackleford while another longshot Stay Thirsty raced near the rail. The positions were unchanged at the top of the stretch but at that point, the toll of the triple crown finally got to Shackleford leaving Ruler on Ice and Stay Thirsty to battle it out in the stretch. Brilliant Speed made a run around the outside and did end up third but the advantage was clearly with the front-runners who got away with the first six furlongs in a leisurely 1:14 2/5. Ruler On Ice prevailed by three-quarters of a length in 2:30.88.
“You just got be part of it to win the race,” Valdivia said. “I heard other guys smooching and starting to ride at the top of the stretch and I was sitting with lots of horse in second,”
“He ran just unbelievable,” trainer Kelly Breen said. “He was training great all week.”
The $51.50 mutuel was justifiable for a horse who really should have his own Air Miles card. A son of Roman Ruler, Ruler On Ice debuted at Monmouth last summer, broke his maiden at Delaware Park, finished second in an optional claimer at Aqueduct, won an allowance race at Parx (formerly Philadelphia Park), was third in the Sunland Park Derby in New Mexico, and last start was second in the Federico Tesio at Pimlico. Hardly a resume of a Belmont winner.
It was the first triple crown race winner for Breen as well. The 42-year-old New Jersey native did have a horse in the Derby, seventh-place finisher Pants On Fire.
Runner-up Stay Thirsty did look to gain on Ruler On Ice a couple of times in the stretch. A win could have given jockey Javier Castellano a second longshot winner on the day after he rode C.S. Silk to win the Just A Gam Stakes two races earlier.
Derby runner-ip Nehro finished fourth followed by Shackleford, Animal Kingdom, Mucho Macho Man, Santiva, Monzon, Master of Hounds, Prime Cut, and Isn’t He Perfect.