By Ivan Pereira
Overcast skies and rainy weather did not stop thousands from watching an upset win at the Belmont Stakes over the weekend.
For many of the fans of the 143rd running of the race, the excitement came from the thrill of the horses sprinting through the muddy conditions of the 1 1/2 mile course rather than seeing who placed first.
“It’s a good excuse for day drinking and watching horses,” joked Matthew Epstein, 25, of Manhattan, who came with his friends to the race.
Long shot winner Ruler on Ice won the stakes with a finishing time of nearly two minutes 30 seconds, beating out both Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and Preakness Stakes winner Shakleford, which did not make it to the top three. The crowd of 55,779 cheered on the underdog as he sped to the finish line.
Jose Valdivia Jr., the horse’sï»¿ jockey who participated in his first Belmont Stakes, said the crowd’s excitement was exhilarating.
“At the 16th pole, I thought, ‘This is the true test of the champion.’ It’s a great feeling,” he said.
Stay Thirsty, who placed second, had some borough backing in his corner. The colt is owned by Mike Repole, a St. John’s University alumnus and founder of the Whitestone-based Vitamin Water.
More than $10 million was wagered during the day’s 13 races, but it was more than just about the money for the fans who turned out.
Marco Venturino, of Glen Cove, L.I., came out with his family and had a picnic on the grandstand and said he was having a good time.
“It’s the excitement and the atmosphere,” said Venturino, who has been attending for a decade. “It’s New York, you can’t get any better than this.”
Laura Fawcett, 25, of Boston, who came with her friends from Brooklyn for the first time, enjoyed the timeless atmosphere of the large event, including some of the summer outfits the men and women wore.
“It’s very lovely out here. It’s fun to see the horses,” she said.
For some, watching the race was part of a deep tradition that has been passed on for generations.
New Hampshire native Tom Neal has been to 39 Belmont Stakes and started coming when his father brought him when he was a child. His most cherished memory was watching Secretariat win the Triple Crown in 1973.
“He was the most powerful animal I’ve ever seen,” he recalled.
Neal continued the tradition with his adolescent son Matthew, who was also enthusiastic about the sport.
“We don’t miss this ever. It’s so exciting,” Tom Neal said.
Desta Arnold, 33, of Jamaica, shared that sentiment. Her father would always come to the races and win big at the betting office when she was young.
Aside from the extra cash he would bring home, Arnold’s father would speak highly about the races and that got her passionate about the sport, too.
“It really is a beautiful annual event,” she said.
Arnold added that the race’s conditions add to the excitement because the winning horse really has to prove itself not only in front of a New York crowd, but also to itself.
“This track is the longest track, so the horse that wins has to have the most endurance,” she said.
Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4546.