Now what? That was what horse owners and trainers who survived the Triple Crown were thinking Sunday in the wake of Ruler on Ice’s improbable victory in the 143rd running of the Belmont Stakes. With long-shot winners in each of the three legs of the series, the 3-year-old division is still in search of a champion.
There was some looking back as well, especially from the connections of the Kentucky Derby champion Animal Kingdom, who lost all chance to win the Belmont after he got roughed up at the start of the mile-and-a-half marathon and nearly lost his rider, John Velazquez.
Velazquez said Rajiv Maragh’s careless riding aboard Isn’t He Perfect had touched off a chain reaction that caused Animal Kingdom to stumble and lurch Velazquez forward and out of his left stirrup.
“A few jumps after the start, somebody came over and clipped heels with us, and I lost my balance and I tried to put my feet back into the irons, and it took me about a sixteenth of a mile to get my balance together,” Velazquez said. “I put my foot back into the iron, and by then we were really far back, and you saw what the outcome of the race was.”
Velazquez suggested that Maragh was trying to intimidate Mucho Macho Man and Ramon Dominguez, who had replaced Maragh as the colt’s rider for the Belmont. Isn’t He Perfect did break inside from the No. 11 post and bumped Mucho Macho Man. There was no inquiry into the start, and neither Velazquez nor Dominguez filed an objection after the race.
New York racing stewards, however, will review the incident with all three jockeys when racing resumes at Belmont on Wednesday.
Maragh, who guided Mucho Macho Man to a third-place finish in the Derby and a sixth in the Preakness, told The Daily Racing Form that he had not acted maliciously, and the replay of the race does not reveal any conclusive evidence.
Barry Irwin, the chief executive of Team Valor International, the partnership that owns Animal Kingdom, agreed that the mishap cost his colt but said he did not think that Maragh had acted out on purpose.
“Rajiv is not that kind of guy,” Irwin said. “Isn’t He Perfect is a tough horse to control. He was acting like an orangutan in the paddock in the Preakness. He did something similar at the start there, too. We got robbed of having a chance to run our race, which was pretty depressing.”
Animal Kingdom’s sixth-place finish has changed Irwin’s plans for the colt. He had hoped a victory or strong showing in the Belmont would allow him to return Animal Kingdom to grass racing in August at the prestigious Arlington Million in Chicago. Instead, Animal Kingdom will be pointed toward the Travers Stakes on Aug. 27 at Saratoga Race Course.
“Now is no time to be adventuresome,” Irwin said. “We need to win the 3-year-old championship to increase the value of this colt for the partnership. We got to stay on dirt.”
The Preakness champion Shackleford, who finished fifth in the Belmont, is shipping home to Kentucky on Monday and will receive some time off on a farm to be a horse. The Haskell Invitational on July 31 at Monmouth Park is a possibility for his return to the racetrack.
“He came out of the race fine,” said Scott Everett, the assistant to the trainer Dale Romans. “He ate up fine, his legs are sound, and he’s good. The one and a half miles might just have been too long for him, but there aren’t many horses bred to go that distance anymore.”
There is a pretty good chance Animal Kingdom will meet Ruler on Ice in the Midsummer Derby, as the Travers is known. Ruler on Ice’s owners, George and Lori Hall, are leaning in that direction.
“I really don’t know,” the gelding’s trainer, Kelly Breen, said. “The people over there in New York were so gracious and everything. Right away, George said he’d love to see this horse running in the Travers. We’ll take it one day at a time and see how he is and how he’s acting and how everything comes about. When he’s ready, that’s when we’ll run him again.”