Countdown to the Cup: Bird Bath
by Steve Haskin
Date Posted: 8/31/2009 8:11:11 PM
Last Updated: 9/1/2009 9:58:44 AM

Summer Bird secured his place atop the 3-year-old division with his resounding Travers victory in the slop.
Photo: Coglianese Photos

Whether he’s splishin’ and a’splashin’ or movin’ and a’groovin' or rockin’ and a’rollin,’ the sight of Summer Bird and his distinctive blue blinkers charging down the stretch is leaving racing fans reelin’ with the feelin.’

 

And that feelin’ is, this is one serious racehorse and the towering figure constantly at his side is one serious trainer.

 

It appears certain with each passing month that racing is witnessing the beginning of the Ice Age.

 

Although the names Tim Ice and Summer Bird are not exactly compatible, the same cannot be said about the man and the horse, who have come from virtually nowhere to win the $1-million Belmont Stakes (gr. I), finish second in the $1.25-million Haskell Invitational (gr. I), and win the $1-million Shadwell Travers Stakes (gr. I).

 

With his 3 1/2 length victory in the Aug. 29 “Midsummer Derby,” run over a sloppy track, the son of Birdstone   – Hong Kong Squall, by Summer Squall emulated his sire’s feat of winning the Belmont and Travers.

 

A little over a year ago, the 34-year-old Ice didn’t even have a trainer’s license, deciding after 10 years as an assistant to go out on his own. Despite his lack of experience, he has demonstrated a talent and instinct for training far beyond his years.

 

At the end of February of this year, Summer Bird had not even started, making his career debut at Oaklawn Park on March 1, finishing a fast-closing fourth at odds of 18-1.

 

Less than six months later, these two unlikely heroes sit atop the racing world, having embarked on a remarkable odyssey, mostly by land, that has taken them to Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), Belmont Park and the Belmont Stakes, the New Jersey Shore and the Haskell Invitational, and historic Saratoga and the Travers Stakes. In addition to the fame and glory they have achieved, their four-race journey has resulted in purse earnings of $1.45 million.

 

It all began when an unknown Summer Bird, coming off a maiden victory at Oaklawn Park, charged down the stretch from last to finish third in the $1-million Arkansas Derby (gr. II) at odds of 26-1. That set in motion the Triple Crown journey of Summer Bird and Ice, which entailed van rides from Shreveport, La. to Louisville, Ky., back to Shreveport, and finally the 33-hour trek to Belmont Park.

 

Ice and Summer Bird have formed such a tight bond they seem as one, knowing exactly what the other requires. To this point, each has made all the right moves, while helping to propel the other forward in their respective careers.

 

“I’m just a passenger on Summer Bird’s ride,” said Ice, who is looking to move his home base from Louisiana to the Northeast next year, preferably New York or New Jersey. “The horse has gotten me here; I know that. I wouldn’t be here without Summer Bird, and I hope now he gets the respect he deserves. I owe this horse a lot. I owed him even before the Kentucky Derby, just getting me there. To be able to walk in the barn every morning and see him is a gift.”

 

To make the story even more extraordinary is the fact that last year, Summer Bird’s owners and breeders, Drs. Kalarikkal K. Jayarman and his wife, Vilasini Devi, were in the process of phasing themselves out of the sport after years of disappointment.

 

“He was all ready to quit,” said Devi of her husband. “There were so many setbacks and problems, and he said ‘I cannot take it anymore.’ The late ‘80s and early ’90 were good, and we had some success. My husband eventually quit medicine and said he wanted to see what he could do training the horses himself. But it was really hard for him. Training was a lot different. Then we met Tim at Louisiana Downs. We went to see him and talk to him and it went very well. We found someone we could communicate with.”

 

Last winter, two incidents took place at almost the same time that would change Ice’s life forever. He found out his wife Heather was pregnant with their first child and he was given a chestnut colt to train by the Jayaramans named Summer Bird. Heather is due Sept. 29, three days before Summer Bird attempts to win the $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup Invitational at Belmont Park.

 

“It’s amazing,” said Heather, who watched the Travers with her parents and friends back home in Shreveport. “(The Jayaramans) were on the way out when they gave us horses. They were selling their mares in bunches and thinning down.”

 

The run-up to the Travers began much like Summer Bird’s other races, shipping in about four weeks before the race and familiarizing himself with the track and his new home. Joining him two stalls away in the stakes barn, located just up the road from the clubhouse entrance, was Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, who, with his trainer Chip Woolley, was on quite an odyssey himself.

 

Everything seemed to be going smoothly for both horses until it was discovered after a workout that Mine That Bird had entrapped his epiglottis, which required minor surgery two weeks before the Travers. It was decided following his final work to proceed with caution and withdraw him from the Travers, which was a bitter blow to Woolley.

 

The Travers drew a field of seven, headed by the brilliant Florida Derby (gr. I) winner Quality Road  , who had returned from quarter crack issues in the spring to break the 6 1/2-furlong track record at Saratoga in the Amsterdam Stakes (gr. II). Also entered were Dwyer (gr. II) and Jim Dandy (gr. II) winner Kensei, and stakes winners Charitable Man, Hold Me Back  , and Our Edge, and stakes-placed Warrior’s Reward.

 

Heavy rains beginning the night before turned the track into a sea of slop. Quality Road, despite stretching out from a sprint to 1 1/4 miles, was made the 3-2 favorite, with Summer Bird 5-2, and Kensei 4-1.

 

Because Summer Bird had become uncharacteristically rambunctious in the detention barn prior to the Belmont, Ice decided to van him over this time. He walked him around for 10 minutes, put him in his stall, and Summer Bird proceeded to lie down and take an hour and a half nap. This is a horse who knows exactly what he’s supposed to do and never has to be shown anything more than once. He’ll work slowly the first time over a new track and then always improve the second and third time. He does everything with gusto, but is often found sprawled out in his stall fast asleep, snoring away. “He’s such an intelligent horse,” Ice said. “He knows how to take care of himself. He doesn’t do much in his works, but he gets out of them just what he needs.”

 

Our Edge, wearing two bar shoes, went to the lead as expected. Quality Road, who broke a step slowly and was bounced around from both sides, and Kensei were alongside each other in second and third, respectively, with Kent Desormeaux trying to rein in an eager Summer Bird in fourth.

 

Down the backstretch after a testing quarter in :23.19 and half in :46.88, Summer Bird, with a clear run on the outside, moved up into third ahead of Quality Road, and had dead aim on Our Edge and Kensei. It is obvious this no longer is the so-called plodder everyone saw in the Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby, but a versatile colt who can be placed anywhere.

 

“The horse was really, really sharp,” said Desormeaux, who won his first Belmont Stakes aboard Summer Bird and has now won his first Travers. “I was holding him off the lead. For at least a half mile I had him under restraint. I thought I’d be second to last until the quarter pole and threading my way through traffic, but I was running over the leaders from the start of the race. He was full of himself. He doesn’t have a massive turn of foot, but he can gallop his field into the ground and I thought I’d be better off running them off their feet, so I let him take the race to them and he just took off.”

 

Our Edge retreated quickly, leaving Kensei on the lead. But Summer Bird had no trouble charging past Kensei nearing the head of the stretch, quickly opening up a clear lead and extending it to two lengths at the eighth pole. Quality Road, who didn’t have the best of trips, tried to make a run at him, but he had little left in the final furlong. Hold Me Back, the longest price at 17-1, circled the field and for a brief moment in the stretch looked as if he might pose a threat to Summer Bird, but the winner was still full of run and he drew clear to win comfortably in 2:02 4/5. Quality Road was third, 2 1/2 lengths ahead of Charitable Man.

 

With his victory, Summer Bird has become the latest poster child for stamina. Combined with his class, his temperament, and now his versatility, being able to be placed anywhere on the track, he can do it all and is the closest thing we have to a throwback.

 

So, the horse many have referred to as “The other Bird,” continues to drum his name in people’s minds.

 

“That doesn’t bother me,” Ice said of the second-fiddle reference to Mine That Bird. “You can call him what you want. You can call him a two-time grade I winner. Winning this race means just as much as winning the Belmont. I can’t say I feel better for either one. The Belmont was a classic, but for my colt to win the Belmont and come back and win the Travers, the same as Birdstone did, means a lot.”

 

Watching the replay for the first time in the Trustees Room, Ice said following the race, “I got goosebumps. Look at him, Kent can’t pull him up. I was wondering what took him so long to come back.”

 

It took an outrider going at a full-out gallop to corral him. On his way back, Desormeaux stopped by the ESPN set and discussed his ride, as Summer Bird patiently circled around, delaying his return even longer.

 

Emotions ran high back in Shreveport. “We had a mini Travers party and there were a lot of tears,” said Heather, who had purchased her plane ticket, but was told by her doctor the day before that it would be too risky to travel. “Even my dad cried. I definitely won’t be able to sleep tonight. I’m just so happy for Dr. J. and Devi. We’ve all been blessed.”

 

When Summer Bird returned to the stakes barn, he dragged his groom around the shed, showing no effects of the race. From the time he began his journey, it became obvious that nothing rattles this horse, not the traffic and activity on Longfield Ave. that he faced during his stay at Churchill Downs, and not the daily dose of loud music blaring from Siro’s restaurant, located directly behind the Saratoga stakes barn.

 

Ice received a phone call from Mine That Bird’s co-owner Mark Allen congratulating him. “I wish you could have been in there,” Ice said. “It means a lot that you called. I feel bad for you guys. Go win the next one. Good luck and I appreciate the call.”

 

Shortly after, Desormeaux arrived, and posed for a group photo with the horse and his guests. Ice asked him, “Have you won the Travers before?” When Desormeaux told him this was his first, as was the Belmont, Ice said, “What else haven’t you won? That’s where we’re going next.”

 

The Jayaramans also stopped by to feed carrots to their Travers winner. Ice kidded Desormeaux by asking him, “Dr. J. wants to know if you’re gonna ride him back in the Jockey Club,” to which Desormeaux replied, “I’ll let you know.”

 

Then on a more serious note, Desormeaux told the Jayarmans, “For your kindness and the opportunity to ride this horse and for all the things you’ve stepped up to do for me and my agent, you’re locked in. We love you. Thank you for everything.”

 

There is no doubt that everyone associated with Summer Bird has a great deal to be thankful for.

 

******************

 

The morning after the Travers, as Ice was receiving a steady stream of congratulations, Chip Woolley was preparing to send Mine That Bird out for a gallop. Afterward, while the colt was cooling out, Woolley sat on a chair outside his stall, feeding him carrots each time he walked by. The Derby winner is quite a character himself. Like Summer Bird, he loves his carrots and will snatch them right out of his groom and exercise rider George Smith’s back pocket.

 

Woolley and Ice have become close, sharing a similar adventure and being neighbors in the stakes barn for the past four weeks. Although happy for Ice and seeing Summer Bird vindicate the classic crop of 3-year-olds that as usual has been maligned by some, he had to feel Mine That Bird would have been right there considering the track condition, distance, and pace scenario.

 

“It was set up for my horse to run well,” Woolley said as his horse walked the shedrow. “The horses were bunched up and he would have been 10 lengths behind the whole field. It was the perfect setup for my horse to come and close. But that’s racing. We weren’t in there and I think all eyes ought to be on Tim and Summer Bird.”

 

Woolley does have the heroes welcome back home for Mine That Bird to look forward to.

 

“Like they say, there ain’t no place like home, and I’ll be glad to get back,” he said. “I’ll have a few weeks to enjoy being home and then get back on the road and get ready for the races in California. Our fans at home have been huge supporters and there was a lot of disappointment when we didn’t run.

 

“It’s a tough deal, but we had to fix him. There was nothing we could do. That’s the decision we made and now we have to move forward. Thank God it wasn’t something else. It could have been much worse and detrimental to his career. He’s a gelding, so hopefully he’s gonna run five or six years. Missing one race is not as major a deal as it would be with a stud. If he had been a stud it might have changed our whole outlook. If he runs until he’s 6 or 7, then maybe one race is irrelevant. Mr. (Leroy) Jolley told me, ‘Don’t worry about it son. You go out there and you win the Breeders Cup and you’ll never remember you missed the Travers.’ That’s been our ultimate goal since he won the Derby and we believe that can happen.”

 

Woolley feels this crop of 3-year-olds has been under appreciated and believes racing fans will come to realize just what a talented group it is.

 

I think they’re gonna see down the road that this was a spectacular crop of 3-year-olds,” he said. “You’ve lost a bunch of good horses like Pioneerof the Nile and I Want Revenge   and Old Fashioned  , and Quality Road had to miss the Triple Crown. As time goes on I think you’ll se these horses were truly a force in racing.”

 

Woolley, who was unknown prior to the Kentucky Derby, having won only one race all year, appreciates all that has happened to him so quickly, just as Ice appreciates it.

 

“I’ve met a lot of people I never would have met,” he said. I’ve had a lot of great times and been to places I’ve never been. Being at Saratoga and seeing what history there is here, there’s no other place in the world like it. Just being here and making friends made it special.

 

“It seems like a long time ago since we left Sunland Park. The only real downer on the whole journey was missing this race. He didn’t win them all but he always ran his race. I’ll just have to write this one off.”

 

******************

 

Before anyone gets down on Quality Road, he took all the worst of it in the Travers, having only one 6 1/2-furlong race in five months, stretching out to 1 1/4 miles, acting up in the gate, and breaking a step slowly and getting bounced around like a three-cushion billiard shot at the start. He was then forced to race bottled up for most of the way, getting mud kicked in his face, and when he finally found some running room he did kick into gear after changing leads late, moving into second at the eighth pole. But it was too much to ask of him under the circumstances and he ran well enough to finish third, beaten five lengths. Most would agree he would have been an absolute lock in the $1-million Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II) next Monday, but it was decided to go for the big one. With this race under him, and assuming it didn’t take too much out of him, we could be ready to see the horse everyone thought he was before the Travers.

 

Congratulations to Bill Mott for having Hold Me Back ready for a peak performance. The son of Giant’s Causeway was highly regarded this spring, and is now back to where he was when he was winning the Lane’s End Stakes (gr. II) and finishing a fast-closing second in the Toyota Blue Grass (gr. I).

 

Despite the disqualification, how about the terrific training job by Saeed bin Suroor and especially Rick Mettee for having Vineyard Haven ready for a monster effort in the King’s Bishop Stakes (gr. I) off a long layoff and against one of the deepest fields seen all year. Add to that the brilliant performance of Music Note in the grade I Ballerina Stakes over Indian Blessing and the impressive Godolphin debut of Sara Louise, the last filly to defeat Rachel Alexandra, in the Victory Ride Stakes (gr. III). This has been a sensational meet for Godolphin, and should set them up for a huge fall season.

 

If you’re looking for toughness, honesty, and consistency in a horse, look no further than Capt. Candyman Can, who once again ran his heart out and was rewarded with a victory by disqualification in the Kings’ Bishop, his fifth stakes score and first grade I. 

 

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