04/16/2010 12:00AM

Ice Box stays fit for Derby in half-mile breeze

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It's springtime, and trainer Nick Zito, native New Yorker, has again returned to his adopted home state of Kentucky.

It's part of his annual pilgrimage, en route from Florida to New York. Twice before, with Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go for Gin in 1994, Zito has won the Kentucky Derby. And if he doesn't win it, he's almost always in it. This year will mark the 14th time in the last 21 years that Zito will have had a horse in the Derby. Ice Box, the Florida Derby winner, is in for sure. Jackson Bend, the runner-up in the Wood Memorial and Fountain of Youth Stakes, is right on the bubble in terms of .

Should both run, it will mark the seventh time that Zito has had multiple entries in a Derby. He is training both as though they will get in. Jackson Bend worked at Churchill Downs on Thursday, and on Friday, it was Ice Box's turn to step up, and he stayed on course for the May 1 Derby with a half-mile breeze, in company, in 48.40 seconds under exercise rider Stacy Prior.

"I'm just trying to keep him happy as can be," Zito said by phone from Kentucky, where he has been for nearly two weeks now. "He's had three races at a mile and an eighth. He's ready. He's had miles and miles and miles in him from last fall. He'll work again next week. I might sharpen him up, only because there's going to be a 20-horse field. He might have to dart for a hole. Ben Jones used to do it on Tuesday and run on Saturday. Am I right or wrong?"

It was a typically entertaining, stream-of-consciousness session with one of racing's true characters. Zito, a Hall of Famer, at one point was asked how it felt knowing that if the Florida Derby photo finish had gone the other way, Ice Box would be on the outside lookin in in terms of graded stakes earnings. His reply: "If Hillary had a different hairstyle, she might be president."

"That's just the way it goes," Zito said, elaborating. "There's a lot of woulda, shoulda, coulda in this game. It evens out eventually. Luck is a big factor. You've got to be lucky and blessed. Maybe luck can carry him all the way now."

One thing about Zito's horses - they are battle-tested. Ice Box ran in the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby. Jackson Bend, who will be ridden by Mike Smith should he get into the Derby, has made his last two starts in the Fountain of Youth and the Wood Memorial, both of which were won by the Derby favorite, Eskendereya.

"Both these horses have earned their diplomas," Professor Zito said. "They earned the right to get their degrees."