ELMONT, N.Y. — The clouds had been hovering low over old Belmont Park since early morning, threat of rain forecast by weathermen across Nassau County. Three hours before the 91st running of the Jockey Club Gold Cup, a looming front dropped into place. At 3:45p.m. the heavens opened. Trainer Tim Ice calmly surveyed the deluge from the NYRA detention barn
Down in the jockeys’ room the valets were pulling out rain pants and waterproof silks and one rider remarked to another that the weather mirrored conditions from the last year, when Curlin used the 1 ¬º-mile contest to become the richest runner in North American racing history. Good-natured grumbling continued as the jockeys headed out to take their shot at a purse worth $750,000, but Kent Desormeaux had no problem with the weather. He knew his mount could handle the off-track.
Ten minutes to post and the clouds parted, backside visible once again. The surface set up perfectly for Summer Bird, who went flying through the drizzle to victory over Quality Road and Tizway. Up in the boxes, Ice pumped his fist in celebration while Dr. Kalarikkal Jayaraman caught the cheers of his wife, Vilasini, and the rest of the family on video camera. Then they all filed down to the ground to meet their conquering hero, Desormeaux raised his fist in superman-like triumph, and Dr. Jayaraman hoisted the trophy to the tune of a hundred shutter clicks.
Practical aspects of the race follow as thus: Summer Bird, checked slightly up the backstretch, moved along five-wide off the rail and settled into good position in third while Tizway led the seven-horse field through early fractions of :24.96 and :49.73.
“He was just cruising along, and once I positioned him, he was floating,” Desormeaux said. “He was awesome today.”
Approaching the quarter pole as Quality Road took over the lead, the son of Birdstone dug in to challenge, then drew away nearing the sixteenth pole.
“The last sixteenth, I was thinking no one was going to get by him,” said Ice. “He’s that kind of racehorse. He makes the lead and if you head him, he’s going to dig back in. I was feeling pretty confident inside the sixteenth pole.”
Summer Bird won by a length in a final time of 2:41.22, only the 10th horse in racing history to take the Belmont, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup in the same year (last horse to do so was Easy Goer in 1989). With his score over older males, he effectively made a case for 3-year-old colt honors — and if all goes according to plan, he’ll wrap up the season with a bid in the Nov. 7 Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Those who think they’ve seen the best of the hard-knocking colt may want to think again.
“I think there’s still a lot of upside to him,” Ice said. “Today proved he can compete with older horses; he’ll be back as a 4-year-old and he’ll be taking on older horses most likely in the Breeders’ Cup. He’s a colt that has moved forward with each race he’s won. He is what we thought he was. I don’t say that on a light note, but he’s actually getting better.”
Only 7,000 racing fans turned out to watch the 1.25-1 favorite, who returned $4.50 for a $2 win bet as he extended his record to 4-1-1 from eight starts (including a second-place finish to Rachel Alexandra in the Grade 1 Haskell on Aug. 2). The winner’s purse of $450,000 increased his earnings to $2,023,040 for a career that began with a fourth-place finish in a maiden race at Oaklawn Park on March 1.
He’s come a long way,” said Ice, who brought Summer Bird to the Kentucky Derby — in which he was sixth — off a third-place finish in the Arkansas Derby. “He came into this race better than he has in any other race. And as long as he keeps moving forward, I’m a very happy guy.”
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse Magazine, The Albany Times Union and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.