Haskin's Belmont Wrapup: Avian Adventures

Haskin's Belmont Wrapup: Avian Adventures
Photo: Coglianese Photos
Summer Bird's upset victory in the Belmont Stakes capped a wild and wacky Triple Crown season.
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The 141st Belmont Stakes (gr. I) proved one thing: you can crown two birds with one stone. The victory by Summer Bird in the 141st Belmont Stakes (gr. I), combined with Mine That Bird’s spectacular score in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), enabled Birdstone   to accomplish the extraordinary feat of siring two different winners of a Triple Crown race in the same year. That hadn’t been done since Count Fleet sired Kentucky Derby winner Count Turf and Belmont winner Counterpoint in 1951. The fact both colts came from Birdstone’s first crop made it all the more amazing.

 

The wild and unpredictable 2009 Triple Crown finally is over. Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the series is that it actually ended in relative sanity. Whether that’s good or not depends on how you look at it. If you were writing a book, and it certainly would make a compelling book, you’d have to feel the Belmont wasn’t a conclusion befitting the soap opera events that preceded it. There was none of the craziness, colorful characters, plots of collusion, auto break-ins, jockey follies, and all the other offbeat incidents that stamped the first two legs. There was no filly frenzy generated by Rachel Alexandra, and the Calvin Borel phenomenon fizzled under the spotlight.

 

Take nothing away from Summer Bird’s performance and Tim Ice’s superb training job, but the Belmont basically was just a good clean race that had a decent story, with nothing memorable to stamp it in the memory as did the Derby and Preakness (gr. I). Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but for those expecting more melodrama in the final chapter, it just didn’t happen.

 

Even after Rachel Alexandra departed the Triple Crown scene after barging in so abruptly, it still didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of those hoping to be part of “The Ponderosa Comes to New York.” There were so many cowboy hats (mostly black) at Belmont Park all that was missing was a herd of cattle. When was the last time a Belmont favorite’s trainer and owner met in a bar fight? By the time Chip Woolley arrived in New York his crutches had become as familiar an inanimate object as Archie Bunker’s chair and Columbo’s raincoat.

 

But from a racing standpoint, the 2009 Triple Crown was about a colt, a filly, and a gelding.

 

Ironically, both sons of Birdstone entered the Triple Crown picture on the same day when it was announced on April 17 that Summer Bird, trained by Tim Ice at Louisiana Downs, and Mine That Bird, trained by Bennie “Chip” Woolley at Sunland Park, would compete in the Kentucky Derby. The first reaction by most people was, “Who the heck are Tim Ice and Bennie “Chip” Woolley?

 

Well, seven weeks later, Woolley is a household name and Ice is on the verge of becoming one.

 

After the announcement, both trainers set off on their own road adventures, accompanied by an exercise rider and a little-known Thoroughbred, that would bring them fame and riches beyond their wildest imagination.

 

Mine That Bird’s New Mexico to New York odyssey, covering some 3,000 miles, most of it by trailer and pickup truck, read like a novel, becoming the most compelling human/animal travelogue since John Steinbeck’s cross-country journey with his French poodle in “Travels With Charley.” Like Charley and Steinbeck, Mine That Bird and Woolley’s relationship became, as the author wrote, “A bond between strangers.”

 

Receiving far less publicity was Ice, exercise rider Chris Trosclair, and Summer Bird’s 33-hour journey by car and horse van from Shreveport, La. to New York in their quest for the third leg of the Triple Crown, a race Ice and Kalarikkal K. Jayaraman and his wife Vilasini, who own and bred the colt, had been pointing for since Summer Bird’s surprising third-place finish in the Arkansas Derby (gr. II). They were encouraged by Summer Bird’s sixth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby at odds of 43-1, in which he made a big run on the far turn, only to be fanned seven-wide by jockey Chris Rosier.

 

The trio left Shreveport at 4 p.m. on May 17 and arrived in Louisville, Ky. at about 4 a.m. the following morning, where Summer Bird was allowed to unwind for 10 hours and get some sleep. Then it was back on the road for the 11-hour drive to Belmont Park, with Ice and Trosclair going on ahead of the van to prepare for Summer Bird’s arrival. What made the trip special for Trosclair, a 19-year-old student on temporary hiatus from Louisiana State University, was that the horse was vanned by his father, Angelo’s, horse transportation company. The elder Trosclair had been a rider on the Louisiana circuit for many years.

 

When Ice and Trosclair arrived at Belmont, they were informed Summer Bird would be stabled in the barn of Nick Zito, who trained Birdstone to an historic upset over Smarty Jones in the 2004 Belmont Stakes at odds of 36-1. That was the first good sign. Ice kidded with Zito, asking if he could keep Summer Bird in Birdstone’s old stall.

 

With the racing world still abuzz over Rachel Alexandra’s epic victory over a fast-closing Mine That Bird in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), few took notice of Summer Bird’s arrival at Belmont Park three days later at 5:30 a.m.

 

Ice had originally announced that Joe Talamo would ride Summer Bird in the Belmont, but when Hall of Famer Kent Desormeaux became available following the Preakness, Ice decided to go with the more experienced rider who had more familiarity with the sweeping Belmont oval. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Ice had once been an assistant to Desormeaux’s brother Keith.

 

The first crucial test came on May 23 when Summer Bird had his first work over the Belmont surface. Unfortunately, the colt did not get high grades, breezing seven furlongs in 1:27 2/5 and didn’t appear to be handling the track, spinning his wheels a good part of the work. That was not what Ice had been hoping to see, and he expressed his disappointment. But he also knew the reason he decided to come to Belmont early was to get the colt accustomed to the track, which often takes some getting used to. Woolley had taken a different approach with Mine That Bird, shipping him back to Churchill Downs instead of heading up I-95 for the relatively short drive to New York.

 

“This is why we’re here early, to give him three weeks over the track” Ice said following the work. “He’s just coming off a 23-hour trip up here, not counting the 10 hours at Churchill. He trained for three days before the work and I thought it would take him five or six days to really get a hold of it.”

 

Meanwhile, everyone was waiting for word on the Belmont status of Rachel Alexandra. Finally, almost two weeks after her Preakness victory over an unlucky Mine That Bird, owner Jess Jackson made the expected announcement at 5 p.m. on Friday, May 29 that Rachel would not run because “she needed a vacation.” Did she not need a vacation on May 25, 26, 27, or 28th? Did she start showing signs of fatigue immediately after her May 29 photo-shoot for Vogue magazine? The timing just seemed very odd.

 

Rachel’s defection left the Belmont Stakes without a horse trying for the Triple Crown or a rematch between the Derby winner and the femme fatale who defeated him in the Preakness. That sent the New York Racing Association’s marketing department scrambling to try to salvage some sort of advertising campaign to promote the race.

 

No one knows how Rachel’s unexpected presence in the Preakness affected the Triple Crown, especially the Belmont Stakes, but as industrial tycoon Arthur Jensen said to mad newscaster Howard Beale in the movie Network, ‘You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale.”

 

But there was still a Belmont to be run. Following the Kentucky Derby, Ice had decided to put blinkers on Summer Bird for the Belmont, and he also had them on for the colt’s works.

 

“Dr. J. and I talked about it and we decided to put them on right after the Derby,” Ice said. “The first time around he was looking up into the grandstand, and we thought if we could get him focused a little bit more when he breaks out of the gate he could lay a little bit closer and not fall so far out of it.”

 

For Summer Bird’s second work, Ice added toe grabs to the colt’s hind shoes, allowing him to get a better hold of the track. On May 30, Summer Bird breezed five furlongs in 1:01 4/5 with Desormeaux aboard. This time he went over the track with more authority and galloped out strongly.

 

This was what Ice was hoping to see. Everything was now in place for a big effort. Ice already knew Summer Bird was doing fantastic physically, having seen him fill out since the Kentucky Derby. During his stay at Belmont the colt hadn’t missed an oat, was feeling good, and it was obvious he was thriving in his new surroundings.

 

On the Monday before the Belmont, Ice had Summer Bird out for his afternoon grazing. The colt’s coat was resplendent as he ripped into the grass with great vigor, barely finding the time to swallow.

 

“Nick’s gonna run me out of here before too long; he’s eating up all his grass,” Ice said. “He’s eating everything. Whenever he gets by the trees, he thinks he’s a giraffe and starts eating the leaves off them.”

 

It was quiet times like this that Ice, a former assistant to Cole Norman, was able to reflect on all that’s happened to him after only one year of training on his own. Here he was about to celebrate his 35th birthday on the day of the Belmont Stakes, in which he had a legitimate contender. The following day, he was scheduled to have a photo shoot from atop the Empire State building, his first visit to New York City. His wife Heather is expecting their first child on Sept. 29. And as he points out, his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers (he was born in East Liverpool, Ohio, about 25 miles from Pittsburgh) are Super Bowl champs.

 

“It’s all unbelievable,” he said. “I’m just enjoying it one day at a time. It’s an honor to be in this position so early in my career. You dream about it, but very few people get to experience it. I might not be back ever again, but at least I can say I was there once.”

 

Ice then was shaken back to reality by a call from Dr. Jayaraman, a retired cardiologist, saying he and Vilasini, a retired pathologist, were nearing Belmont Park. The Jayaramans were on a road trip of their own, driving up from Ocala, Fla. and staying overnight near Baltimore to break up the 16-hour drive.

 

When they arrived, they walked up to Summer Bird as he grazed and loved what they saw. “See how much more weight he’s put on?” Ice said. “He’s filling out beautifully.”

 

“Tim deserves all the credit,” Dr. J, as he is known, said of his trainer.

 

But Ice also gives credit to Jayarman for giving Summer Bird, who is out of the Summer Squall mare Hong Kong Squall, all the time he needed when he was young. “Dr. J. wanted to let him mature and grow into himself,” Ice said. “He’s a pretty good size for a Birdstone, and he was one of the last ones of the 25 2-year-olds to be broken.”

 

The fact that Ice still trains Summer Bird is amazing in itself. The colt originally was in the barn of John Sadler, who had him up to six furlongs in his works before telling Jayaraman in January to get him off the synthetic tracks.

 

“He was doing poorly in his works, so I encouraged (Jayaraman) to get him out of here and put him on dirt,” Sadler said. “I thought he was a lovely horse, and I could tell even then he was going to be a route horse. I really liked him, but if I had kept him here it wouldn’t have been good for him.”

 

Jayaraman then sent the colt to Ice. “He showed us a lot before he ever ran,” Ice said. “We stuck him in at six furlongs first time out (on March 1 at Oaklawn) just to get a race in him and he closed well to finish a good fourth. At the time, we certainly weren’t thinking Triple Crown. We were thinking we had a nice 3-year-old and we wanted to let him progress.

 

“After he broke his maiden impressively (on March 19), we figured we’d give him a shot in the Arkansas Derby. We were pointing him for the Lone Star Derby (gr. III), but when he ran so well in the Arkansas Derby, we started thinking about the Kentucky Derby. He’s always shown a lot of class and he’s such a determined horse, so I knew he’d give us a good effort and I was very happy how he ran coming from so bar back.”

 

There were other occasions where Ice nearly lost the horse. Bob Baffert tried to buy him for Bernie Schiappa after the Arkansas Derby and IEAH Stable came close to finalizing a deal for him after the Kentucky Derby, but both deals fell through because of a suspicious tendon that Jayaraman said the colt has had for a while and has never been a problem.

 

On the Wednesday before the Belmont, Mine That Bird finally arrived from Kentucky, this time by plane. The big story was Borel, who appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, the David Letterman Show, the Today Show, and Good Morning America, just to name a few. Although he was in New York for almost a week leading up to the race, he decided not to take any mounts, which many felt was a mistake, considering Borel’s lack of experience (only seven mounts) and success (his last victory coming 10 years ago) over the Belmont track. He also guaranteed “110%” that Mine That Bird would win. Borel, having won the Derby on Mine That Bird and the Preakness on Rachel Alexandra, was trying to become the first rider in history to sweep the Triple Crown on two different horses.

 

When asked about his inexperience at Belmont and not having a mount, Borel would reply, “It's not a big deal. You just break and then turn left.” As many feared, Borel fell victim to “Big Sandy,” committing the No. 1 cardinal sin of going very wide into Belmont’s turn of no return and then compounding it by moving early, while losing too much ground. These tactics usually spell sure defeat. You simply cannot get away with that around that big, sweeping turn. Horses who attempt it usually hit the proverbial brick wall by the eighth pole and that’s what happened to Mine That Bird, who ran his heart out even when fatigue set in.

 

This is not meant to detract from all the good that Borel accomplished during the Triple Crown, on both Mine That Bird and Rachel Alexandra, and as a spokesperson for racing. But it just seemed his priorities changed leading up to the Belmont. He spent most of the week in Manhattan sightseeing and making appearances. In his defense, he deserved some down time after an emotional Kentucky Oaks, Derby, and Preakness. He was taken out of his environment and placed in a spotlight that would have blinded most people. Overdosing on camera time has caused many “celebrities” to lose focus on what put them in front of the camera in the first place. This still was and always will be Calvin Borel’s Triple Crown.

 

While all the attention was on Mine That Bird, Summer Bird was becoming more on the muscle each day, and Ice had him blow out down the lane earlier on Wednesday to take some of the edge off. The following morning, Ice wasn’t happy having to jog Summer Bird a mile and a half on the sloppy track. “I wish I would have jogged him three miles the way he felt,” he said back at the barn. “He came back feeling way too good.”

 

On the morning of the Belmont, Woolley’s travel companion, exercise rider and groom Charlie Figueroa, said he was sorry to see their magical journey nearing an end. “Everybody says ‘I bet you’re ready to go home,’ and I tell them, ‘Do you want to wake me up from my dream?” he said. “I’ve read about these races and these places all my life.’”

 

Later that morning, Woolley stood next to Mine That Bird’s stall holding out his hand for several minutes while the gelding continuously licked his palm.

 

With the rain long gone, giving way to bright sunshine and temperatures in the 70s, the track dried out quickly, producing fast times all day.

 

Summer Bird at first didn’t handle the detention barn very well. He was wound up after entering the old stakes barn and Ice had to walk him, as the colt tried to buck and rear.

 

“Twice I thought he was going to bust out of his stall,” Ice said later. “He was running at the webbing pretty hard. After he settled down he went to sleep.”

 

He obviously had a good nap, judging by the way he woke up, looking to kick some butt. In the paddock, he bounced around on his toes, coiled and ready to strike. We all know what happened after that.

 

Summer Bird, under a picture-perfect ride from Kent Desormeaux, blew by everyone and drew off to win by 2 3/4 lengths in a respectable 2:27.54 (2:27 2/5) for the 1 1/2 miles. In another bit of irony, the only other horse to ever win the Belmont in 2:27 2/5 (2:27.50 to be exact) was none other than Birdstone.

 

Desormeaux, a veteran of big races at Belmont, saved ground all the way, and then found a seam and moved out at the five-sixteenths pole. It was a flawless Belmont Park ride.

 

Mine That Bird, who had probably run close to 1 3/4 miles, was on empty and a gutsy Dunkirk was able to fight back and beat him by a neck for second, preventing a Birdstone one-two finish.

 

Desormeaux, after six attempts and several heartbreaking defeats, finally had his first Belmont victory, completing his own personal Triple Crown. “I can’t tell you how it feels to have that contentment and to be able to go home and rest at ease knowing I’ve won the three American classics,” he said.

 

Woolley handled Mine That Bird’s defeat graciously and congratulated Ice on his victory. “It’s been a great run and we had a wonderful time,” he said. “We’ll be back. We’ll be scratching and trying to get back here again.”

 

Ice was flushed with excitement as he headed to the track. “I’m losing my voice,” he said. “I was just yelling, ‘Come on Bird! Come on Bird!’ He did it. I knew he would.”

 

Also choked up with emotion was Trosclair, especially after convincing his father to make the trip for the race.

 

“This is surreal; it’s like a blur,” he said. “It made it all worth it that we came up three weeks in advance. I put in all this time galloping him, and it’s just amazing how it worked out after driving here for 23 hours.”

 

When Trosclair met up with Ice near the tunnel leading to the backstretch, the two embraced. All Trosclair said was, “Heckuva gallop boy.”

 

Watching the race in the boxes with his family made it all the more special. “Originally, they weren’t supposed to come,” Trosclair said. “I told my father, ‘Dad, he’s training awesome, he feels great, and he’s progressing every day. I have a great feeling about him. He said, ‘You know what, I’m gonna take a little trip to New York.’ He brought my mom, my little sister, and his brother. Being in their box for the race was an unbelievable experience. I still can’t believe it.’”

 

Summer Bird took care of business in the test barn quickly and was back in his stall when Ice and Trosclair arrived. Ice fed him mints, after which the colt tore into his hay rack and still seemed raring to go. “He looks like he wants to go out and do it again,” Ice said. Then, directing his comments to the horse, added, “You need to hold your head high, boy.”

 

So ends one of the most wild and (pardon the expression) “Woolley” Triple Crowns in history. The leading players started out as mere stand-ins, but became overnight stars.

 

Ice was happy about one thing regarding his horse. “He finally has his own name,” he said. “People from now on will call him Summer Bird. He’s no longer ‘The other bird.’”

 

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