06/17/2011 4:37PM

Ruler On Ice's feat in Belmont Stakes was indeed rare


It’s Father’s Day on Sunday, that happy afterthought of a holiday, institutionalized by Presidential proclamation in 1966 right around the same time Lyndon Johnson also announced the U.S. would be increasing its troop strength in Vietnam. A teen at the time, I had yet to cultivate the well-tuned sense of irony required to fully appreciate such twists of history.

Upon the celebration of that first official Father’s Day, Mother’s Day had been on the calendar for 52 years, since 1914. Granted, it would be six more years before the Constitution was amended and women were allowed to vote. But at least mom had her day, and dad would be off to war again soon anyway.

Fathers everywhere will be braced for all manner of gifts on Sunday, some of them equipped with propane tanks and others in need of regular sharpening. My son usually gives me music – is there a new Buffalo Springfield album out yet? – and my daughter has been working on some kind of art thing to end all art things. I may need to clear a wall.

Then again, when I consider all the changes that need to be made to make racing a healthy sport, I feel like a generous Father’s Day gift was delivered eight days early, when a horse who will never have any impact on either the marketplace or the breed won one of America‘s greatest events.

Yep, that was a gelding who won the Belmont Stakes.

It should come as no surprise that Ruler On Ice is only the second gelding to win the Belmont. To protect the reputation of the breed, the Jockey Club banned geldings from running in the dang thing from 1919 until 1957. Even when the rule was dropped it took a while for word to get around. Creme Fraiche, a gelding by Rich Cream, finally won a Belmont in 1985, but he had Woody Stephens going for him, which was nice.

Geldings are a good thing and there should be more of them. The best guesses from the Jockey Club – who really don’t need to keep track of castrated horses – brings the gelding population in at around 25 percent of registered foals, give or take.

The fact that there are not more geldings taps into the most hard-boiled realities of investment in Thoroughbreds. The dream of every owner, whether they admit it or not, is to buy or breed a great colt, syndicate him for millions, keep half, and then watch his value and stud fee soar with the rampant success of his sons and daughters.

This happens infrequently, although just enough to keep such fantasies alive. Samantha Siegel, who runs a national stable in partnership with her father, Mace Siegel, is among those owners not shy about gelding a colt who needs it.

The Siegels, who were set to be represented by Worldly in the Stephen Foster on Saturday at Churchill Downs, have had a considerable amount of success recently with geldings, including champion 2-year-old Declan’s Moon and the older stakes winners Rail Trip and Arson Squad. And yet, Siegel pointed out, it is a colt like Worldly, a son of A.P. Indy, whose potential to help the cause transcends the racetrack.

“An owner is always reluctant to pull the trigger and geld a horse, because a stallion is the only way to make real money in this business,” Siegel said. “They make it possible to afford the rest of the horses.”

Just about every list of the top 10 all-time Thoroughbreds will include at least two geldings – namely, Kelso and Forego – who between them won eight Horse of the Year titles. The more romantic might add two-time Horse of the Year John Henry, or even Exterminator, a foal of 1915, who ran 100 times and won 50 races. One of them was the 1918 Kentucky Derby.

Unlike the Belmont, however, winning a Kentucky Derby is not all that unusual for a gelding. Before Exterminator there was Vagrant, Apollo, and MacBeth. Since Exterminator there has been Paul Jones, Clyde Van Dusen, Funny Cide, and Mine That Bird. Stir in 15 geldings who finished either second or third, and the Derby comes off as the most democratic of the world‘s great classics.

Despite the fact that most civilians wouldn’t be able to tell a colt from a gelding unless they checked under the hood – or, more accurately, the trunk – castrated Thoroughbreds who can really run for some reason elicit feelings of sympathy and support among fans. It’s as if they have overcome some obstacle, some organic deficiency, deprived as they are of regular doses of testosterone, better known as nature’s nitroglycerin.

Beyond those all-stars mentioned above, the geldings who come to mind as horses who transcend the prejudice of reproductive ability include Ancient Title, Armed, Fort Marcy, Native Diver, Old Rosebud, Roamer, and Roseben. Just like Secretariat, Citation, Man o’ War, and Spectacular Bid, they all are in the Hall of Fame.

Now it is Ruler On Ice’s turn to carry the torch. Despite their fine records in the classics, neither Funny Cide nor Mine That Bird was able to make a lasting mark as older runners. The most recent gelding of consequence to ripple the waters was Lava Man, whose splashy California form never translated across state lines. If Ruler On Ice needs a role model, though, he could do no better than Best Pal, a winner of major races from age 2 through 7, and a Hall of Famer who also had the good taste to finish second in the Kentucky Derby.