Zito has two of top three choices for Belmont Stakes
NEW YORK – For a change, Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito has the favorite for the $1 million Belmont Stakes.
A two-time Belmont winner with long shots Birdstone in 2004 and Da’ Tara in 2008, Zito has two of the top three choices for Saturday’s final leg of the Triple Crown: Ice Box is the 3-1 morning-line favorite and his other starter, Fly Down, is the 9-2 third pick.
A field of 12 was entered Wednesday for a Belmont that will be run without Derby winner Super Saver or Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky.
“Nick’s going to be tough to beat,” said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who will try with 10-1 choice Uptowncharlybrown. “We feel good about our horse. He’s ready.”
McLaughlin took advantage the last time the Derby and Preakness winners didn’t run in the Belmont, winning in 2006 with Jazil.
Zito’s pair of 3-year-olds have been training at Saratoga, and arrived at Belmont on Wednesday. Zito would prefer to fly under the radar, but isn’t complaining about his position this time.
“You know what they say, great expectations can bring great disappointments,” he said this week. “We’re grateful we have these two good horses. It’s better than not having them. We’ve had success at the mile and a half, so I hope that continues.”
Florida Derby winner Ice Box overcame a troubled trip with a sensational rally to finish second in the Kentucky Derby, while Fly Down was a six-length winner in the Dwyer Stakes last month at Belmont.
Ice Box skipped the Preakness, while Fly Down is making his Triple Crown race debut for relatively new owner Richard C. Pell.
“It’s absolutely unbelievable,” said Pell, a New York-based money manager who counts Fly Down among his first purchases in 2008. “You hope you get to the races and win some nice ones, but with my first crop of horses to have one in the Belmont? Since the Dwyer, I’ve been walking around with a permanent smile.”
Preakness runner-up First Dude is the 7-2 second choice. The name refers to Todd Palin, husband of former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Trainer Dale Romans says “a lot of Republicans” will like his horse.
Romans certainly does.
“Ice Box is going to be tough, especially in this race, but maybe we can turn the tables,” he said. “You’re not going to skip a classic with a horse like this. We were waiting to go a mile and a half. He’s a throwback kind of horse, a big rugged kind of horse, nothing bothers him, and I don’t think three weeks (between races) is going to bother him.”
Ice Box will leave from the No. 6 post and be ridden by Jose Lezcano, with Fly Down and John Velazquez aboard just inside at No. 5. First Dude, with Ramon Dominguez, drew the No. 11 post.
Zito has sent out 22 Belmont starters and only once had the favorite: 1991 Derby winner Strike the Gold, who finished second to Hansel at odds of 2-1. His two Belmont wins spoiled Triple Crown attempts, with Birdstone beating Smarty Jones at odds of 36-1 and Da’ Tara winning over Big Brown at odds of 38-1.
The field from the rail out is Dave in Dixie (20-1), Spangled Star (30-1), Uptowncharlybrown (10-1), Make Music for Me (10-1), Fly Down (9-2), Ice Box (3-1), Drosselmeyer (12-1), Game On Dude (10-1), Stately Victor (15-1), Stay Put (20-1), First Dude (7-2) and Interactif (12-1).
Among the long shots to consider are Blue Grass winner Stately Victor and Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert’s Game On Dude, winner of the Lone Star Derby on May 8.
“I’m looking forward to seeing what this horse will do going a distance of ground,” Baffert said. “We bought him for the classics, and he’s making one of them.”
Stately Victor joins Ice Box as the only Grade 1 winners in the field. The bay colt had a tough trip in the Derby in finishing eighth, but trainer Mike Maker is hoping for a smoother trip with Alan Garcia aboard again.
“He made a nice little run on the turn in the Kentucky Derby and came up behind a wall of horses,” Maker said. “He’s a big old dude, and it takes a while to get his momentum back. Alan has the experience, and we’ve had a lot of luck together, so we’re happy to have him.”
With just a maiden win from eight career starts, Spangled Star is the longest shot in the field. Owner Larry Roman, though, figures it’s worth a try.
“He’s distance-bred, we have a great trainer in Rick Dutrow and a great jockey in Garrett Gomez,” he said. “He’s a long shot but there have been a lot of long shots win the Belmont Stakes. I don’t expect him to win, but I’m taking my chance.”
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