06/06/2010 11:00PM

Ice Box still offers value at 3-1


NEW YORK - If it had been up to a horseplayer, the Greeks and their wooden horse would never have made it through the gates of Troy. Horseplayers are contrarians by definition, and if something looks too easy, their first impulse is to bet against it. They're usually right, since favorites lose two out of every three races, sometimes at underlaid prices that don't accurately reflect their true chances of victory.

If Ice Box were going to be even-money in the 142nd Belmont Stakes on Saturday, I could see taking a position against him on price alone. In fact, many of the public handicappers picking against him say they are doing so primarily because he'll be overbet. At anything close to his 3-1 morning line, however, I think he offers more than fair value. He's probably the best horse in the race, and there's nothing wrong with quadrupling your investment when the best horse wins.

Ice Box is the most accomplished colt in the large but thin field assembling for the last chapter of the 2010 Triple Crown. He's the only horse in the field to have won a Grade 1 race on the dirt (the Florida Derby), and one of only two horses (along with stablemate Fly Down) to have won a stakes race on the dirt at more than 1 1/16 miles. He's well rested, working sharply, and trained by Nick Zito, who has won two of the last six Belmonts with Birdstone and Da' Tara.

The most compelling factor in his favor, however, is his heroic performance finishing second to Super Saver in the Kentucky Derby, a race he might well have won in the absence of the nightmarish trip he endured, commemorated in the following 63 words in the official chart of the race:

"ICE BOX, steadied early in traffic, was outrun for six furlongs, made a bold inside run leaving the three-furlong marker, steadied when blocked nearing the stretch, angled out, steadied for a sixteenth of a mile once in the stretch, swung out near the furlong marker for a clear path, then closed a late gap to be steadily getting to the winner late."

In a Derby where half the exhausted field ran the final quarter-mile in trotting-horse time of 29 seconds or more, Ice Box outran the entire field through a relatively good 26.12 seconds on a wet and tiring surface and simply ran out of ground. Why shouldn't he beat a Belmont field that does not include the Derby or Preakness winner?

His strongest competition should come from fellow Zito trainee Fly Down and from First Dude, the Preakness runner-up.

Fly Down has done little wrong in his brief career, comes off a runaway Dwyer victory over the Belmont track, and has plenty of room for improvement while making only his sixth career start. First Dude ran a courageous race at Pimlico, setting the pace and then battling back in the stretch when it looked like he would be swallowed by the late-runners. He's a legitimate threat to wire the field if he steals away to an easy lead, but he's still a little shaky at the distance, has a career record of just 1 for 7, and has already twice lost to Fly Down.

If required to bet a longshot, I might roll the dice with Stately Victor. His four-length victory in the Blue Grass was a shocker off his previously undistinguished form, but looked less like a fluke when the second- and sixth-place finishers in that race, Paddy O'Prado and Make Music for Me, came back to run three-four behind Super Saver and Ice Box in the Derby. He flattened out late while running eighth in the Derby, but if you draw a line through that performance because of the slop, he deserves a long look.

The Belmont is the last leg of a $1 million-guaranteed pick four Saturday, preceded by three other stakes with big and competitive fields: a 10-horse True North for sprinters, a 13-filly Acorn, and an 11-horse Manhattan for older grass runners. My plan is to go deeper in those races than in the Belmont. If everything goes perfectly, I'd like to be alive to four of them in the Belmont -- Ice Box, Fly Down, First Dude, and Stately Victor. If they go less than perfectly and I'm only alive to Ice Box, I'll take my chances. And if I'm dead in every pick-whatever bet, I'll happily take 3-1 on a colt I think should be 8-5.