On the Wednesday before the Belmont Stakes, trainer Tim Ice stood on the apron at Belmont Park and watched Summer Bird skip over a moist, sandy surface. He was quiet, his eyes tracking the chestnut runner's every move, and to the single reporter sitting beside him he offered only a common observation: "He looks good, huh?"
That thought was more than a clichéd horseman's appreciation of his runner, for the colt who could be known as "the other bird" by the Belmont-winning Birdstone, same sire of Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird is coming into this race in fine form. Flying under the radar off a sixth-place finish in the Derby, he has his young trainer to thank for a five-week break between starts after bypassing the Preakness.
"It's given him a chance to develop physically and catch up to his mental state," Ice said.
"He's starting to put on more muscle and he's added quite a bit of weight since the Derby."
Summer Bird has raced only four times in his entire career, with a single maiden score to his credit. But a late run in the Arkansas Derby, which he missed winning by just 1 ¼ lengths, gave him the earnings and showed that he had what it took to merit a try in Kentucky. On the first Saturday in May, he ran near the back of the pack before swinging seven wide with another late run.
"He faced a number of issues (in that race)," said Ice. "A lot of things went against him and yet he was still running at the end. We are here because we feel he is an improving horse. He has gotten stronger and he is a very smart, mature horse. We think he'll be tough if he gets to run his race."
Since arriving at Belmont, the colt has turned in a pair of drills five furlongs in 1:01.89 on May 30, and his initial seven-furlong trip over the track in 1:26.47 on May 23.
"When we first got up here he struggled and I don't know how much of it was the track and how much of it was getting up here – his van ride took two days to get here," Ice said. "So whether it was him learning the surface or getting over the trip, he's handling it great now and I'd rather be great now than better early and start hating it now."
On Wednesday, Summer Bird went for a brisk two-minute lick from the quarter pole to the wire, wearing the new blinkers he'll sport in the Belmont.
"I just let him two-minute clip a little bit," said Ice.
"He wanted to go on out a little further and (exercise rider) Chris (Trosclair) had to make him pull up, he was wanting to do a little bit more than we wanted, but he looked good, he looked in hand. Chris had him the whole time, so overall I'm very pleased with what he did."
Bred by owners Kalarikkal and Vilasini Jayaraman out of the mare Hong Kong Squall, a daughter of 1990 Preakness winner Summer Squall, Summer Bird has given his 34-year-old trainer quite a first year of operation. Ice, a native of East Liverpool, Ohio, went out on his own this season after spending the past two years as an assistant to Morris Hicks. He was also an assistant to Cole Norman and Keith Desormeaux. The latter's brother, Kent Desormeaux, will pilot Summer Bird in the June 6 Belmont, and Ice is expecting his "other bird" might wind up surprising more than a few racing pundits.
"I can't say it enough, this horse is coming into this race so good right now," he remarked.
"And I know everybody likes their horse coming into this race, but he couldn't be doing any better right now."
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.