Tim Ice walked out of the Trustees Room after the Travers and wanted to correct one thing.
“I wasn’t over-confident, I don’t think it was a cocky confidence,” Ice said. “It’s just that everything he’s done coming up to this race gave me confidence. I can’t have confidence if he doesn’t give it to me and he’s given it to me. Watching him train, watching him come back, just the things he does at the barn, he just gives me a lot of confidence in him and he backs it up.”
Like an army.
Summer Bird trounced six rivals including the much-heralded and once-beaten Quality Road in the 140th running of the $1 million Travers Saturday. Summer Bird and Kent Desormeaux tracked the pace of Our Edge and Kensei before drawing off to win by 3 1/2 lengths over Hold Me Back who closed from last to pick up second with Quality Road third. The favorite ran well in his first attempt at 10 furlongs but ultimately couldn’t match the stamina of Summer Bird and Hold Me Back, at least on this day.
Owned and bred by Kalarikkal and Vilasini Jayaraman, Summer Bird finished in 2:02.83 over the sloppy track.
The Grade I stakes collected the seven best 3-year-olds in the country, well the seven best colts. The filly Rachel Alexandra awaits the Woodward and the gelding, Mine That Bird, couldn’t make the Grade I race after throat surgery.
Picking up his third victory (second Grade I stakes), Summer Bird put himself atop the division.
In a race that had plenty of speed on paper, plenty of speed showed up. Alan Garcia guided Our Edge, winner of his last three, to the lead while Edgar Prado angled Jim Dandy winner Kensei to a stalking spot in second. Desormeaux put the Belmont winner into a menacing spot in the next flight, outside Quality Road who showed speed coming off a 6 1/2-furlong stakes win in track record time.
He pulled himself into the maelstrom, fourth on the inside. Warrior’s Reward, second in the Jim Dandy, adopted the next spot, outside in fifth with Charitable Man, third in the Jim Dandy just off of him. The only real closing duties would fall to Hold Me Back who lagged behind after a quarter mile in 23.19 and a half in 46.88. Our Edge retreated first, plummeting along the rail as Kensei took over leaving the backside. Summer Bird already had him measured.
“I didn’t know for sure about Kensei, he was the horse on paper that I was going to have to challenge, I thought he was the horse to beat,” Desormeaux said. “When I loomed up to him I had no idea but I let Summer Bird out and Kensei couldn’t maintain that gap, I let him go from a half to a neck and Edgar pushed a button and didn’t go anywhere, so I sat maybe another 100 yards. I was thinking, ‘I got Kensei, now it’s going to be closers. I don’t want them to come sweeping by me, let’s go, let’s open it up.’ ”
Summer Bird dispatched Kensei and rolled into the stretch, Desormeaux cued him for his right lead and he powered away. The last three sixteenths of a mile was formality as the son of Birdstone responded to Desormeaux’s right-handed whip, then left-handed and back to right. Nearing the wire, Desormeaux checked the big screen in the infield and liked what he saw, pumping his fist and then slapping Summer Bird on the neck while galloping out strongly.
“It’s the ultimate, at Saratoga and in front of God and everybody. It’s dreamy,” Desormeaux said. “Races like these still give me butterflies, I’m a little nervous, not nervous to ride, but butterflies of anxiety because I want to win, I want to do well, I want to notch it in the belt, I want to show off in front of all these important people that are here. To accomplish it is total jubilation, success, glow, inward joy.”
Ice isn’t quite as eloquent as Desormeaux, but just as satisfied. After the race, the press conference, the toast in the Trustees Room, the 35-year-old trainer walked through the exiting crowd to go see his horse in the test barn. He pulled out his last Marlboro Light and took a sweet drag while trying to digest what had just happened. Ice had won his second Grade I stakes with Summer Bird. After finishing second in the Haskell, Ice spent nearly a month, training Summer Bird and three others out of the stakes barn. When asked, Ice tells it straight.
He loved his horse going into the Travers, just like he did going into the Belmont Stakes. Summer Bird breezed twice at Saratoga, going 5 furlongs in 1:01 4/5 the first time and 1:00 4/5 the second. Critics knocked the breezes, especially comparing them to Quality Road’s sub-minute drills.
“His works came up slow, but that is intentional,” Ice said. “I know everybody’s used to seeing good horses work fast but I don’t work my horses fast, there’s no money in the morning. I’d rather have a happy horse at the end of the day and run the way he did.”
Morris Nicks instilled that lesson into Ice. When Ice worked for Cole Norman, horses breezed fast, if they didn’t something was wrong. When Ice went to work for Nicks, the horses slowed in the morning.
“Tim, if there’s one thing you’re going to see from me, my horses won’t be working like the guy you just worked for,” Nicks told Ice.
Nicks preached long gallops, work them easy, let them do it themselves, let them gallop out strong. You’ll have a better horse in the end.
“That’s the key,” Ice said. “You have to have a happy horse, they have to be 100 percent for these races , you can’t bring a horse in here at 90 percent . . . they’re still animals, they’re not machines.”
Whether it’s the breezes or simply class and ability, no horse has emerged in 2009 like Summer Bird. From making his debut March 1 in a 6-furlong maiden at Oaklawn Park to a Belmont/Travers winner.
Ice put Summer Bird in the express lane this spring, leaping from a maiden win in his second start to finishing a closing third in the Arkansas Derby (Ice wore the Arkansas Derby 2009 tie to the Travers), to passing 10 horses in the Kentucky Derby to finish sixth. Ice then made two critical decisions; he added blinkers and Desormeaux. The horse has laid closer since and would be undefeated, with a Haskell win, if it wasn’t for Rachel Alexandra.
“I know a lot of people thought the Belmont was a fluke, calling him the next Da’ Tara, I read a deal saying he was going to be in a claiming race next year,” Ice said. “It’s a mile and a half, and I understand there’s only one mile and half on the dirt for 3-year-olds and there’s not . . . look at him.”
Emerging from around the bend, there was Summer Bird; blue and white plaid cooler, jigging along the horse path between the grandstand and Union Avenue.
Leon Hernandez braced the leather shank taut under the big chestnut colt’s gum. Simply along for the ride. Summer Bird bounced, neck bowed, head down, wagging his tongue and rocking each leg off the ground like he heard the music from Siro’s. Not nervous, just powerful.
Ice handed his car keys to his hotwalker, tossed his cigarette on the ground and fell in line with his classic winner. A few fans along the fence recognized the Travers winner, others ignored the hero in their midst.
Summer Bird marched into the paddock for the second time. Less crowd, less questions.
Sergeant Matt DeGregory saw the Travers winner and immediately directed traffic from the parking lot access road that runs along the back of the saddling stalls.
DeGregory urged a Honda Accord to move forward, clearing a path from the paddock to the stakes barn. Fans stopped, a few horsemen cleared the way, Brown Sugar blared from Siro’s.
Should have been playing Free Bird.