There is a definite Eclipse winner in the Clark Handicap this Friday at Churchill. I am going out on a limb here and throwing the name of Ruler on Ice out there for Champion Three-year-old. Yep, it is a bold statement, but in this crazy, non-consistent three year old stock, I think I may be able to get away with it. Think about it…with an open mind.
Ruler on Ice competed in six graded stakes this year. While he did not finish first in all of them, he was in the money every time with the exception of the Grade 1 Travers. He came onto the scene racing in the Grade 3 Sunland Derby, the race known for catapulting Mine That Bird to Derby stardom, finishing 3rd. He followed that up with a second place win in a non-graded stakes. He did sit out the Derby and the Preakness, but beat BOTH winners in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes over a muddy track. Those of us, who never heard of the horse prior to the Belmont stakes, quickly took notice. His connections entered him into the Grade 1 Haskell and the Grade 1 Travers next, and Ruler finished third and fourth, respectively. He was entered into the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby and with a new jockey aboard was able to make a late surge to finish second despite being wide around the turn. Not being discouraged, the connections entered him in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Ruler On Ice finished 3rd in the Classic, but still ahead of the other horses in his division much like we saw Lucky do last year. When he crosses the finish line Friday in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap, he will surely be the standout horse for best three-year-old. If I could bet on which horse in the Clark will win an Eclipse Award, my money would go on Ruler on Ice. Now, Flat Out did manage to win the Grade 1 Jockey Gold Cup and Grade 2 Suburban but not sure if that can secure him Horse of the Year honors, or even best older male.
Let’s talk competition. When Ruler on Ice won the Belmont, he beat the Derby Champ (I know what you’re thinking and it doesn’t matter that Animal Kingdom was bothered, he lost no matter how you sugarcoat it), the Preakness Champ and the eventual Travers Winner. There is no shame in finishing third in the Haskell; it was all Coil that day no matter who was racing. Now the Classic…the Classic saw Ruler on Ice finish ahead of possible Older Horse of the Year nominee Flat Out, international phenomenon So You Think, 3 year old of the year contender Stay Thirsty, Woodward winner Havre De Grace, last year’s Champion Juvenile Uncle Mo and a late developing To Honor and Serve. Meanwhile, Flat Out beat the likes of Hymn Book who did manage to win 2 non-graded stakes races this year. Not very convincing when stacked up against his division.
How does Ruler On Ice stack up against the other 3-year-old nominees? Well, he beat the Derby and Preakness winners in the Belmont, so check and check. He finished ahead of the Travers winner in the Classic, check. He finished ahead of the Pennsylvania Derby winner in the Classic, check. There is just no other three-year-old that is worthy of this award, especially when he wins the Clark.
So, can he win the Clark…sure can and here is why. First, he just finished ahead of most of the contenders in the race in the Classic. He finished third in that race and the only two that he was not able to out run will not be entered into this race. That means in their last start he ran better than Headache and Flat Out. Second, he likes the ground. We know he can handle the track we watched him eat it up just a few weeks ago in the Classic. Wise Dan may be good on turf and synthetic, but this race is on Churchill’s Main Track. Finally, Garrett Gomez will be climbing back aboard. Nobody works harder than he does getting a horse to the finish line. I think Ruler on Ice had a shot in the Classic and may have had a more successful late charge had he of been started up earlier with more room to run. I can almost guarantee that mistake will not be made again. This time around, with the cut back in distance, the jock will ask his horse to make the move a lot earlier and IF he responds like we know he can…all hail Champion Three-year-old of the Year.
While I cannot say it quite as confidently as you, I tend to agree, the 2011 Clark Handicap is in great position to produce an Eclipse Award winner. I don’t see it so much as a Horse of the Year possibility, but a win by either Flat Out or Ruler On Ice might well put them over the top in divisions that are decidedly light on brilliance this year. Flat Out in the Older Male division, and as you say, Ruler On Ice in the three-year-old division. Of the two, I think Flat Out has a bit better shot.
Angie, I will not disagree with you on your thesis here, other than one small fact: Only a win in the Clark will raise Ruler On Ice’s credentials enough to garner a year-end award. Otherwise, a loss, no matter how close, is not going to be enough to be rewarded. Despite a very consistent season, which I actually wrote about recently, having only one stakes win all year is just not enough. Having said that, I think Flat Out is in exactly the same boat. Whether you consider Game On Dude or Tizway the current leader for the Older Male honors, you have to look at Flat Out’s impressive wins in the Suburban and the Jockey Club Gold Cup, coupled with decent seconds in the Whitney and the Woodward, as enough to have him one big win away from becoming the favorite for the Eclipse.
Agreed, if Ruler on Ice wins the Clark, I will be the first to admit that he is the new leader of the three-year-old division, but why not Flat Out? The four races I just mentioned are enough to have him close, and with the Older Male division having no real standout, it may come down to the last horse standing. Winning the Grade 1 Clark would be the perfect “what have you done for me lately” statement to attract the needed votes.
If you are trying to say that the horses Ruler On Ice has raced against this year are better than the ones that Flat Out has faced this year, you will lose that argument. Why? For the simple reason that everyone knows that this three-year-old crop is a weak one. Like Ruler On Ice, Flat Out has run in consistently big races. In succession he has run in the Foster, Suburban, Whitney, Woodward, Jockey Club, and Breeders’ Cup Classic. Those six races include five grade ones and one grade two, and all of them obviously against older horses. He only won two of them, but in 2011, that is enough to keep him in contention. Comparing Flat Out to Ruler On Ice, the only common denominator in more than one race, was Stay Thirsty. While your selection was beaten by him once, in the Travers, Flat Out beat him rather easily in both of their meetings.
Yes his resume is solid, and clearly, as I have outlined, so is the campaign of Flat Out. To me, this argument all comes down to what happens in the Clark. A moral victory is not enough for either horse. Another loss would only push voters to the other horses in the argument, like Animal Kingdom or Caleb’s Posse on the 3yo side, and Game On Dude or Tizway as the Older Male. So who wins the Clark? It’s a tough race with tigers like Wise Dan, Headache, and Prayer for Relief waiting in the weeds, but I think Flat Out’s best race wins this.
Ruler On Ice did beat Flat Out in the Classic, but it was after the race was all but decided. Neither horse was going to win, and Ruler On Ice ran by him late to beat him by just over half a length. Keep in mind, that race was also at 1 ¼ miles, while the Clark is only nine furlongs. Even in the Classic, Ruler On Ice did not have Flat Out beat at the shorter distance. Flat Out has proven to love this distance, see the Suburban romp and solid performances at Saratoga, while Ruler On Ice looks to like extended distances a bit more. Look at this way; do you think Ruler On Ice would have beaten Flat Out in any of the nine furlong races he has run recently, the Suburban, Whitney, or Woodward? I have much respect for Ruler On Ice, but my answer is, no, not in any of them. Therefore, while I realize Ruler On Ice is one of the horses to beat in the Clark, it is Flat Out who is the singular horse to beat. And if the most likely winner does make it to the Clark winner’s circle, then it will be Flat Out that collects an Eclipse Award (as Champion Older Male) and not Ruler On Ice.