01/18/2010 12:00AM

Summer Bird is 3-year-old male champ

Barbara D. Livingston
Summer Bird won the Belmont, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup to earn his Eclipse.

One morning the week of the Kentucky Derby, trainer Tim Ice was asked if he thought the race might be a little ambitious for Summer Bird, who at that point had raced just three times. His career had begun just two months earlier at Oaklawn Park, with a fourth-place finish in a maiden race. Summer Bird then stretched out around two turns and defeated maidens, then jumped straight into the Arkansas Derby and finished third. That was it.

Showing the quiet confidence that would be on display in upcoming months as his horse embarked on a series of races that would earn him the 3-year-old championship, Ice said he thought Summer Bird would handle the Derby just fine.

Summer Bird finished a deceptively good sixth in the 19-horse Derby field. Many a horse with such little experience has regressed coming out of the Derby, but Summer Bird thrived. And he provided a punch line for Ice the rest of the year.

Summer Bird came back five weeks after the Derby and stormed home to win the Belmont Stakes.

"You still think the Derby took too much out of him?" Ice said, playfully.

After a brief freshening, Summer Bird embarked on a summer and fall campaign that was as ambitious as the first half of the year.

He came off the bench to finish second to the filly Rachel Alexandra in the Haskell Invitational, and in the process displayed a new dimension, laying closer to the pace after rallying from far back in his previous starts.

Those newfound tactics came in handy four weeks later in the Travers. Summer Bird stalked the early pace, then finished powerfully to win the Travers by 3 1/2 lengths.

"You still think the Derby took too much out of him?" Ice cheekily said after the race.

Next up was the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park, Summer Bird's first start against older horses. No longer was he considered the underdog. Finally, after wins in the Belmont and Travers, and a solid performance in the Haskell he was sent off the favorite for the first time in his life. And he came through again, winning the race by one length.

Ice traveled with Summer Bird from Oaklawn to Churchill Downs, then on to Belmont Park, Monmouth, Saratoga, back to Belmont, and out to California, where Summer Bird competed in the Breeders' Cup Classic. The week of the race, Ice couldn't resist one last time.

"You still think the Derby took too much out of him?" he said, laughing.

Summer Bird, a chestnut-colored son of Birdstone out of the Summer Squall mare Hong Kong Squall, had filled out magnificently by the fall. And he ran an admirable race in the Breeders' Cup Classic, finishing fourth, three lengths behind Zenyatta, while doing the best of the five 3-year-olds in the race.

Drs. K.K. and Devi Jayaraman, who bred and own Summer Bird, then accepted an invitation to run Summer Bird in the Japan Cup Dirt. But while training there, Summer Bird suffered a slight fracture to his right front ankle. Upon returning to the United States, Summer Bird had surgery in California, then went with Ice to Oaklawn Park to recuperate. He is expected to race again by the summer.

"Everything's good so far," Ice said in December. "As much as you wouldn't want something like that to happen, he came out of the surgery great. The fracture was nondisplaced. He only needed one screw.

"This horse has meant the world to me," Ice said. "I haven't let him out of my sight."