The Triple Crown is a long, arduous grind, with horses shipping to new tracks well in advance, training hard, and racing hard at distances never before attempted.
But perhaps no horse in memory has ever made such light work of winning a classic as George and Lori Hall’s Ruler On Ice, whose Belmont Stakes (gr. I) odyssey lasted all of 17 hours. Many of the colt’s opponents in the Test of the Champion had been at Belmont Park for weeks, getting a feel for the track, schooling in the gate and paddock, and adapting to Big Sandy’s testing 12-furlong circumference and long, sweeping turns.
For Ruler On Ice and trainer Kelly Breen, Belmont Park held no fears, needed no acclimatization, and was nothing more than a day trip from the Jersey Shore. After all what’s another track to a horse who had run six times at six different tracks in six different states, including a jaunt to Sunland Park in New Mexico.
On Belmont Stakes day, June 11, Ruler On Ice, the problem child of Breen’s quintet of classic hopefuls this year, departed Barn 11 at Monmouth Park at 6 a.m. for his 60-mile van ride to Belmont Park. The son of Roman Ruler – Champagne Glow, by Saratoga Six, whose antics prompted an early castration while being broken by Barry Eisaman, was accompanied on the van by foreman Alberto Torres, who grooms only Ruler On Ice. Torres, who has been with Breen for nearly 10 years, stayed close to the gelding the entire trip, holding him and petting him and keeping him calm.
“He was still kicking the walls occasionally, but he wasn’t that bad,” Torres said.
Ruler On Ice arrived at Belmont at about 8:30, had his legs washed down, and quickly settled in at Barn 16, several stalls down from another Belmont participant, Santiva.
At 2:30 p.m., Breen left his home in Farmingdale, N.J. and headed up the Garden State Parkway to Belmont, along with his wife Melissa and Henry Sullivan, George Hall’s brother-in-law, who handles the public relations for George and his wife Lori’s racing operation. At that point, they had no idea their horse’s odds were around 30-1 in the early betting, nor did they care.
Melissa, slept through part of the drive, but when it began to rain, it inspired one of her rhymes. Because Ruler On Ice was the only horse in the 12-horse field who had won in the slop, she came up with, “It’s raining, it’s pouring, Ruler On Ice is soaring.” That was almost as good as “Wire to wire, Pants On Fire,” her ode to their Louisiana Derby (gr. II) winner.
Breen called jockey Jose Valdivia Jr. to go over last-minute strategy, which basically was to put the horse in the race early. But the call wasn’t necessary, as it turned out. Valdivia, one of the sharpest riders in the country and a racing historian from a racing-oriented family, was way ahead of him.
“Kelly was about to go over the plan, but Jose had it carefully studied already,” Melissa said. “He had gone over every horse in the race and broke it down just the way he had it planned. They had everything coordinated. Jose is like a trainer sitting in the jockey’s seat.”
After the Breens arrived at Belmont, everything happened quickly. Valdivia gave Ruler On Ice a flawless ride, keeping him right off Preakness (gr. I) winner Shackleford’s flank. Despite his 24-1 odds, he just would not go away. The Hall’s striking neon pink and orange silks shone like a beacon through the murk getting seemingly brighter the closer they got to the packed grandstand. When the field turned for home, the silks still were right there and showing no signs of fading.
In the stretch, Ruler On Ice splashed for home, with a stubborn Stay Thirsty on his inside and the distance-loving Brilliant Speed on his outside. Both colts pulled on near-even terms and looked ready to dispose of this little-known New Jersey horse who had never won a stakes or a race farther than 1 1/16 miles. But the gutsy Ruler On Ice refused to yield and held off both his attackers, and actually was edging clear at the wire to win by three-quarters of a length, paying $51.50.
After returning to the winner’s circle, the capricious youngster wanted no part of the blanket of carnations or the Belmont Stakes cooler on his back.
Back at the barn, as the van driver waited for the traffic to clear, Ruler On Ice amazingly had his head buried in his feed tub and never took it out until he had polished off every oat. Once he had licked his tub clean he proceeded to rip into his hay rack. It would have been difficult for anyone to believe this was a horse who had just run one of one of the most grueling and demanding Belmont Stakes in memory over swamp-like conditions.
When the Breens and Sullivan arrived, Sullivan went over to the horse and said to him, “You are the Man! You are the Man! God bless you.”
At 11 p.m., Ruler On Ice was back in his familiar Barn 11, Stall 53 at Monmouth. He was given more feed by Torres and once again cleaned out the tub.
Kelly and Melissa didn’t get home until midnight after having dinner in Manhattan, and by 6 a.m. Sunday, Breen was back on his pony, the 8-year-old Fagan’s Legacy, winner of the 2005 Pilgrim Stakes at Belmont, sending out his early sets. The only visible change from the previous morning was the blanket of carnations draped over two lawn chairs outside the barn and Ruler On Ice’s Belmont Stakes webbing curled up in a bucket outside Breen’s office.
Other than that, everything was back to normal. “Just another morning,” Breen quipped.
Over in Breen’s “B” barn, which Ruler On Ice preferred over his trainer’s main barn right next door, the Belmont winner was walking the shed and showed no signs at all of the previous day’s battle. He was then led back into his stall and peered over his webbing, appearing bright and alert and more than amenable to petting.
So ended one of the most extraordinary and whirlwind 24 hours in Triple Crown history.
It has been an unforgettable journey on the classic trail this year for Breen and the Halls.
Kelly’s Heroes numbered five strong early in the year, headed by Sweet Ducky, winner of the Garden State Stakes and Seton Hall University Stakes at Monnmouth last year and second in this year’s Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III) at Gulfstream. But when Ramzan Kadyrov, president of Chechnya, made the Halls an offer for the colt they couldn’t refuse, their big classic hopeful was gone.
But Breen had other weapons loaded and aimed at Churchill Downs. His most promising colt was Nacho Business, an impressive maiden winner at Gulfstream. Pants On Fire was already established having placed in the LeComte and Count Fleet Stakes, but he faltered in the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) when an attempt to rate him off the pace failed. When another colt, Nacho Saint, finished a troubled fourth in the Gotham Stakes (gr. III) that added another name to the mix.
Meanwhile, toiling in the frigid Northeast was Ruler On Ice, who had been beaten in an optional claimer on the Aqueduct inner track before winning an allowance race at Parx Racing at Philadelphia Park, hardly an auspicious opening act to the classics.
Then came the weekend of March 26-27. Breen decided to run Pants On Fire in the Louisiana Derby, partly as a rabbit for Nacho Business. But as it turned out, Pants On Fire scored a gutsy neck victory in the $1-million race, catapulting up the list of Derby contenders, while Nacho Business came up lame in the race.
The next day was the $800,000 Sunland Derby (gr. III). Breen was sending Nacho Saint and convinced the Halls to also send Ruler On Ice, explaining that it didn’t cost any more to send two horses than it did one. Nacho Saint tired to finish sixth, but Ruler On Ice came flying late to finish third, beaten only 1 ½ lengths and nearly catching Astrology for second.
So, just like that the Derby landscape had changed for Breen and the Halls.
What was remarkable about their success was that Breen had picked out Ruler On Ice, Sweet Ducky, Nacho Business, and Nacho Saint at the Keeneland September yearling sale for prices ranging from $52,000 to $150,000. He purchased Ruler on Ice, who was consigned by the colt’s co-breeders, Liberation Farm and Brandwine Farm, for $100,000.
But the high from that March weekend’s success didn’t last. Pants On Fire bled a “four” on a scale of one to five in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), and Ruler On Ice was plagued by a lingering low red blood count that compromised his chances in the Federico Tesio Stakes, in which he still managed to finish second.
“We thought we had him normal going into the Tesio, but he came out of the race somewhat lethargic, so we pulled some more blood on him,” Breen said. “Since he began having this problem he was given 12 blood tests and failed every one of them.”
It wasn’t until two weeks before the Belmont that his blood count began returning to normal. A week before the race, Breen reported to the Halls that the Ruler On Ice’s blood report was the best it had been in six months. The Belmont was a go. And to help the gelding focus better on the task at hand, Breen decided to add blinkers.
Of all their horses, no one could have imagined it would be Ruler On Ice that would give Breen and the Halls their first classic and grade I victory. Certainly not Eisaman, who broke such top horses last year as The Factor, Flashpoint, his homebred J J’s Lucky Train, and Plum Pretty in addition to the Halls horses.
“Watching on TV, I could empathize with Kelly,” Eisaman said. “The horse froze up and didn’t want to go into the winner’s circle, and before that he displayed his antics leaving the paddock when they were playing ‘New York, New York.’ None of that is odd for him. He was a very very difficult young student. It was hard to get him saddle broken, and it was hard to get him to go to the racetrack. He would go and stop and prop and play. He wasn’t mean, just too studdish and didn’t have his mind one iota on learning anything.
“Where he was bad was going to and from the racetrack, but once on the track he could be the consummate professional, as he was in the Belmont. He was one of the last horses to leave here last year, because we were trying to get him through his issues the best we could. We basically tried to outsmart him instead of out-muscle him. The best thing I did to outsmart him was making the call to Kelly telling him we need to castrate him. I can assure you, if anyone wants to boohoo that the Belmont winner is now a gelding, they never would have heard of Ruler On Ice the stallion. As it is, it still didn’t turn him into a choir boy as you could see before and after the Belmont.
“But I always thought he was endlessly energetic. It was impossible to tire him, and even though his pedigree didn’t exactly shout a mile and a half, when he put his mind to something you couldn’t wear him out.”
The positive vibes surrounding Breen’s barn continued right up until the Belmont. Breen gave Pants On Fire an all-important work between races on June 10 and the colt blazed a half in :45 1/5 and showed no signs of bleeding. He now runs in the June 18 Pegasus Stakes (gr. III). Then, later that same afternoon, Breen’s top 3-year-old from last year, the graded stakes-placed Nacho Friend, won an allowance/optional claimer in his second start of the year and did it despite losing a hind shoe.
This year’s Belmont featured for the first time in history the first seven finishers of the Kentucky Derby. To add some color to the race, there were several mini-dramas leading up to it.
Barry Irwin, president of Team Valor International, couldn’t wait to get back to some sense of normalcy after his life had been turned upside down by Animal Kingdom’s Derby victory.
“It’s not me so much, it’s dealing with the expectations of so many people,” he said. “When you’re dealing with people’s dreams and emotions you have no idea how much pressure goes with it. I think I accomplished something very unique -- breeding a horse that won the Kentucky Derby who had never run on dirt and with a totally foreign pedigree. But there hasn’t been a whole lot of chatter about that. There has been about taking Robby Albarado off the horse and trainers that lie. People want to marginalize the best part.”
Irwin, of course, did stir up another little controversy by dismissing the chances of Shackleford at the media luncheon in Manhattan four days before the race and saying it was Mucho Macho Man that he feared, not the Preakness winner.
That prompted Shackleford’s trainer, Dale Romans, to defend his horse: “I’m not saying that was the dumbest thing Barry has ever said, but it was one of the dumbest.”
The day before, Ahmed Zayat, who owns Derby runner-up Nehro and who has horses with Romans, told the trainer flat-out, “There is no way Shackleford will get the mile and a half. I beat you before. Why shouldn’t I beat you again at a mile and a half?”
Romans laughed that one off, saying, “He’s my friend. This is how racing got started – two guys sitting around saying, ‘My horse is faster than your horse.’ We always have fun with each other.”
Then there was the Mucho Macho Man shoe issue. After losing a shoe in both the Louisiana Derby and Preakness, the colt was fitted with a new special polyurethane shoe that acts more as an extension of the foot. This horse also was being maligned, with a number of people claiming he was too light.” All trainer Kathy Ritvo would say was that the colt ate 24 quarts a day, consisting of cooked oats, molasses, and rice bran. That included an occasional 2 a.m. feeding.
Two days before the Belmont, Irish invader Master of Hounds arrived from quarantine at Aqueduct and immediately began raising a ruckus, sharing a barn with fillies for the first time in his career. It reached a point where assistant trainer T.J. Comerford had to call trainer Aidan O’Brien in Ireland and tell him if he didn’t calm down he would have to van him back to Aqueduct and ship over on race day. “Aidan, he just can’t carry on like this,” he told the trainer.
Fortunately, a spin around the Belmont track later that morning helped settle him down and he was never a problem after that.
Finally, there was Mike Repole, who was trying to salvage whatever he could from the Triple Crown after losing 2-year-old champion Uncle Mo to illness. It was up to Stay Thirsty, 12th in the Kentucky Derby, to provide him with a thrill in his first Triple Crown experience, this time in his home town.
“You want my post-race winner’s quotes now?” Repole kidded in the paddock before the race. “This is his leg. If there is one leg of the Triple Crown you’d run him in this is the one. The last three-eighths will separate the men from the boys. We’ll find out who this horse is and how good he is. He’s done with excuses. He will run to the best of his ability. We just don’t know what that is.”
The sealed sloppy conveyor belt surface all but eliminated several of the contenders, who never seemed to handle the going. Master of Hounds broke slowly and quickly found himself last. But the biggest disaster befell 5-2 favorite Animal Kingdom, who broke slightly inward, but when Mucho Macho Man came in on him hard after being crowded and intimidated by Isn’t He Perfect, Animal Kingdom clipped heels and stumbled. Jockey John Velazquez nearly fell off him and wound up losing his left iron. On such a speed-favoring track, the Derby winner’s chances seemed to sink into the quagmire. He would make a big move before finishing sixth.
“It was unbelievable,” Velazquez said. “They came over on me and clipped heels and I almost came off. I had a horrible trip after that. No way he was going to make up that much ground.”
Trainer Graham Motion added, “It’s just disappointing, because you would have liked him to have a fair shot to run his race. Johnny said he was surprised the horse didn’t go down. When you come this far you know how much goes into it and it was all sort of for nothing. These horses only have so many races in them and to waste a race like that was very disappointing.”
Shackleford, as expected, cleared the field from Post 12 and moved in to save ground. Valdivia rode a masterful race, shaking the reins at Ruler On Ice to put him in the hunt and then easing him outside Shackleford. Stay Thirsty also broke alertly and secured a comfortable spot along the inside.
The opening quarter of :23.92 was legitimate enough, but as in the Derby and Preakness, the pace slowed to a crawl, with Shackleford maintaining a length or two lead through fractions of :49.08 and 1:14.51. There was little change in the order as they neared the half-mile pole, the mile completed in 1:39.95.
“I could hear some whips cracking behind me and guys were chirping to their horses,” Valdivia said. “Jesus (Castanon on Shackleford) started to look left and then right and got into his horse, and I’m just sitting on mine.”
Velazquez had spent a good portion of the early running trying to get his foot back in the iron and was unable to put his colt any closer to the leaders. He finally was able to pull the trigger and Animal Kingdom demonstrated his explosive turn of foot by quickly passing six horses to get to within seven lengths of the lead. He actually looked like he had a shot to win nearing the head of the stretch, but he was unable to sustain his run after all his early trouble.
Approaching the quarter pole, Shackleford still led by a length, but Ruler On Ice was coming, as was Stay Thirsty and Brilliant Speed, who had been hung wide through most of the early running and down the backstretch.
“Turning for home, everything started going in slow motion,” Valdivia said.
At one point, the four were strung out across the track and it was anyone’s race. Brilliant Speed appeared briefly as the likely winner, but Ruler On Ice kept digging in, as did Stay Thirsty.
Said Valdivia, “At the sixteenth pole, I started thinking. ‘Wow, the true Test of the Champion. Oh, my God, I’m going to win the Belmont Stakes.’ I started to see all the camera flashes getting closer and closer to me. I saw Stay Thirsty coming up on the rail, but Ruler wasn’t slowing down. I knew then the wire was going to come up in time. It was just an unbelievable feeling.”
Valdivia’s wife, Renee, said, “He’s so passionate he can tell you anything about racing and break down each race,” she said. “He surprises a lot of people with his knowledge of the history of the sport. He can tell you about every horse he’s ever ridden.”
He’ll certainly remember this one, especially thinking back to those cold New York winter mornings working Ruler On Ice.
“I told Kelly that I liked him so much I was going to freeze my butt off to come and work with him every morning,” Valdivia said.”
Stay Thirsty kept running hard to finish second, 1 ½ lengths ahead of Brilliant Speed, who was 5 ¼ lengths in front of Nehro, who just nailed Shackleford for fourth. Animal Kingdom ran evenly late to finish sixth. The final time was 2:30.88.
No one was more proud after the race than Breen’s father Jackie, who once owned a few horses.
“I used to get up early in the morning to take Kelly to a barn to learn how to ride,” he said. “He was ready to be a jockey when he put on 10 pounds and grew six inches and that was the end of his riding career. I ended up bringing him into construction with me. I’m a union steamfitter and he was an apprentice making all kinds of money. I said to him, ‘Kelly, I’ve got something to tell you; it’s not always like this.’ He said, ‘Pop, I’ve got something to tell you; I’m going back to the racetrack tomorrow.’ I told him, ‘Go ahead, that’s what you love.’
“When a kid gets up at 4 o’clock in the morning and is whistling while he’s brushing his teeth because he’s so happy to be going to the racetrack, that’s his dream and is where he belongs. I’m so proud of him. I’m busting with pride right now.”
Melissa also recalled her husband’s dedication to horses. “When he was a kid he washed 10 cars to get $25 to go out to a farm and get on a horse for a half-hour,” she said. “He went out there and got up on the horse and the horse grazed for the whole half-hour. He never moved. Kelly was mucking stalls at age 13. He would muck out 10 stalls a day just to be able to trail ride that day, he loved it so much.
“He’s always had the potential to be one of the top trainers. He’s had such a great relationship with George and Lori. They knew he had the talent and they gave him the opportunity to work with better horses.”
It was Breen’s love of horses and their distinct personalities that enabled him to embrace the challenge of a horse like Ruler On Ice.
“It’s quirky horses like Ruler on Ice who have attention deficit problems that makes Kelly want to accept the challenge of trying to find out what’s bothering them mentally and then figuring out how to settle them and get them straightened out,” Melissa said. “And Ruler On Ice has been that kind of challenge.”
Martin Luther King once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge…”
In Kelly Breen’s case, he stands in the winner’s circle of the Belmont Stakes.