ELMONT, N.Y. — He is in his town and at his track and, while others have more wins in the race, the Belmont Stakes is widely considered trainer Nick Zito's personal showcase.
As a native New Yorker, the Hall of Famer always gets a little more emotional when he brings a contender to Belmont Park in early June. And with his record of saddling two winners and six runners-up in the final leg of the Triple Crown, Zito always draws an abundance of attention before the 11/2-mile test.
But despite being a veteran of the grind, Zito admits to feeling especially tense as he prepares for the 142nd running of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.
The raspy-voiced trainer has never come into this classic with the kind of expectations he carries this weekend.
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With Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winners skipping the Belmont, the focus has landed squarely on Zito's dual entry of Grade I winner Ice Box and his Dwyer Stakes-winning stablemate, Fly Down — the 3-1 morning-line favorite and 9-2 third choice in the field of 12.
Though Zito has saddled a Belmont favorite before, when Kentucky Derby winner Strike the Gold ran second to Hansel as the 2-1 choice in 1991, his victories in the race have come from long shots Birdstone in 2004 and Da' Tara in 2008.
As much as Zito appreciates the faith the racing public has in his chances Saturday, he says he has been working overtime to keep the pre-race hype from affecting him.
"Obviously, any time you have the favorite, there is some added pressure," Zito said. "But on the other hand, favorites get beat a lot. For me, I believe that you have to be content sometimes and, if they can come back good, I think we'll be all right.
"I feel confident both horses are getting better, and I think that's important. They are both showing me they will still be around hopefully by the end of the year."
Ice Box's troubled journey during his runner-up effort in the Kentucky Derby has been about as widely discussed as the race winner.
However, instead of dwelling on the what-ifs of that day, Zito says the colt's progression into one of the leading 3-year-olds is a success story.
In his first three starts — all at distances of a mile or less — Ice Box failed to finish better than fourth, including a seventh-place run in his debut.
Since stretching past a mile, though, the son of Pulpit has won three of five outings, including his last-to-first rally in the Florida Derby on March 20.
"I've always believed in Ice Box. A lot of people were down on him, even in the stable, but I believe you have to give everyone a chance," Zito said. "Sometimes they don't work out, and you waste a lot of time and energy and money. But I always believed in this horse, and I was so happy the way he came around and proved my point."
His grandsire, A.P. Indy, and his broodmare sire, Tabasco Cat, are former Belmont Stakes winners, so the distance shouldn't be a problem for Ice Box.
What is in question is how effective his late-running style will be in a race that appears devoid of much speed.
The Dale Romans-trained First Dude gained respect when he carved out fractions of :22.91 and :46.47 in the Preakness Stakes and held for second, beaten by just three quarters of a length by Lookin At Lucky.
Though Uptowncharlybrown and Lone Star Derby winner Game On Dude could be more forwardly placed in the early stages of the Belmont, the key to lasting on the front end of a marathon is being able to relax -— something First Dude has already shown he can do.
"All the press keeps telling us we'll be solo on the lead, and I hope you're all right," Romans said. "But things never really work out like they should and, if somebody else decided to change their game plan, we are in a good spot on the outside to sit right off them. As long as he's nice and relaxed like he was in the Preakness, that was the key."
While WinStar Farm hoped to be at the Belmont with its homebred Super Saver, Bill Casner and Kenny Troutt's operation will be represented by the highly touted Drosselmeyer. WinStar is trying to become the first owner since Overbrook Farm in 1996 (Derby winner Grindstone and Belmont winner Editor's Note) to win two legs of the Triple Crown in the same year with different horses.
Drosselmeyer has drawn rave reviews from his connections since last fall, but he has won just two of eight starts, neither one a stakes race.
After failing to get into the Kentucky Derby because of a lack of graded stakes earnings, the son of Distorted Humor prepped for the Belmont with a runner-up finish in the Dwyer, where he was beaten 6 lengths by Fly Down. Despite some slight bruising in his left-front foot earlier in the week, Drosselmeyer worked 5 furlongs in :59.65 for trainer Bill Mott on Monday.
"Billy thought his frogs (underside of the hoof) were getting a little soft, and he just wanted to protect them this week (with a bar shoe) and make sure the track didn't chew on his feet," said WinStar racing manager Elliott Walden, who trained 1998 Belmont Stakes winner Victory Gallop. "The whole thing about him is (Saturday) should be his day because, even as a 2-year-old, we started him out going long. He looks like the type of horse who will go long so ... we've kind of been thinking about this race ever since we didn't get in the Derby."