05/26/2010 11:00PM

Zito's got the goods for Belmont Stakes

Email
Barbara D. Livingston
Fly Down will make his first Triple Crown start in the Belmont.

One of the many pet phrases trainer Nick Zito uses comes from a preacher friend: "Great expectations bring great disappointment."

When it comes to the Belmont Stakes, Zito has far exceeded expectations in recent years. He has won two of the last six runnings of the Belmont; in 2004 with Birdstone, a 36-1 shot, and in 2008 with Da' Tara, who at 38-1 was the longest shot on the board. In the same span, Zito has two seconds and two thirds with horses who ranged in prices from 11-1 to 34-1.

But this year will be different. Zito, 62, will be mindful of his preacher friend's words when he saddles Ice Box and Fly Down in next Saturday's 142nd edition of the Belmont, the third and final leg of the Triple Crown. Ice Box, coming off a second-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, in which he encountered traffic trouble, is the probable favorite. Fly Down, a six-length winner in the Grade 2 Dwyer Stakes on May 8, could challenge First Dude for second choice in what is shaping up to be a 10-horse field.

While Zito knows expectations will be different this time around, he says the same principles involved in winning still apply: Have your horse right on the day, and hope for a little racing luck.

"If we have 12 more days of good training and they stay good, I'll be extremely happy, because I can't ask for anything better than that," Zito said earlier this week from Saratoga, where he is training his two colts. "Great expectations bring great disappointment. You've got to maintain. What if First Dude gets loose, or we don't get the trip? That's racing luck.

"Ice Box could have very well been the Derby winner," he said. "Most people saw Jackson Bend could have been right there [in the Preakness]. The only thing that changes is, you hope that you've got the horse as good as we think we've got them."

While Zito has two Belmont victories, he said he

believes he could have one or two more. Six times he has finished second, including in 1991 with Strike the Gold, whose late rally fell a head short of Hansel. Strike the Gold, who won the Kentucky Derby, is the only favorite Zito has run in the Belmont.

Zito in the Belmont

Year Horse Odds Finish
2009 Brave Victory 27-1 7th
  Miner's Escape 22-1 10th
2008 Da' Tara 38-1 WON
  Anak Nakal 34-1 3rd
2007 C P West 12-1 5th
2006 Hemingway's Key 15-1 6th
2005 Andromeda's Hero 11-1 2nd
  Indy Storm 17-1 4th
  Pinpoint 15-1 11th
2004 Birdstone 36-1 WON
  Royal Assault 27-1 3rd
2001 A P Valentine 5-1 2nd
1999 Stephen Got Even 9-1 5th
  Adonis 46-1 12th
1996 Louis Quatorze 6-1 4th
  Saratoga Dandy 6-1 11th
1995 Star Standard 6-1 2nd
1994 Go for Gin 3-2 2nd
1992 Agincourt 24-1 7th
1991 Strike the Gold 2-1 2nd
1990 Thirty Six Red 7-2 2nd
&1984 Morning Bob 6-1 3rd

"To run a mile and a half and just get beat a head was tough," said Zito, who had finished second the year before with Thirty Six Red.

In 1994 and 1995, Zito again ran second in the Belmont. In 1994, Kentucky Derby winner Go for Gin could not hold off Tabasco Cat, who had stalked him from the outset of the Belmont. In 1995, Star Standard set a controlled pace under Julie Krone but gave way grudgingly to Kentucky Derby winner Thunder Gulch in the final sixteenth.

In 2001, A P Valentine finished second to Point Given, though second was 12 1/4 lengths back. Finally, in 2005, Andromeda's Hero was beaten seven lengths by Afleet Alex, finishing 6 3/4 lengths clear of third.

Andromeda's Hero is representative of many of the horses Zito has brought to the Belmont in the last several years. A horse who had modest success early in his 3-year-old year, Andromeda's Hero finished eighth in the Kentucky Derby at 57-1. After skipping the Preakness, he came back and fired a solid race in the Belmont.

A year earlier, Zito won the Belmont with Birdstone, who had finished eighth in the Kentucky Derby and skipped the Preakness. He denied the then-unbeaten Smarty Jones a shot at winning the Triple Crown.

"With the big fields in the Kentucky Derby, we know what it takes out of them," Zito said. "No offense to any of those great horses, but they never ran with 20 horses. I think everybody's got to realize that for this mile and a half, you'd better have some strength."

Since 2000, five horses have won the Belmont after running in the Kentucky Derby but skipping the Preakness. The filly Rags to Riches won the Belmont after winning the Kentucky Oaks, the day before the Kentucky Derby.

For Ice Box, Zito said he is hoping that same strategy works. Ice Box went into the Kentucky Derby having not raced since winning the Florida Derby seven weeks earlier. In Kentucky, Ice Box had one horse beaten for the first half-mile before launching his bid. He was running as fast as any horse around the turn, but twice in the stretch had to steady and alter course to get to the outside. Once in the clear, he made a steady run, gobbling up ground, but still fell 2 1/2 lengths short to Super Saver.

The morning after the race, Zito expressed his desire to skip the Preakness and point for the Belmont. Owner Robert LaPenta wanted to think about it for a little longer than that, but five days after the race, it was decided the Belmont was the next race for Ice Box.

"Bob told me to think about it," Zito said. "Here's the thing − I know he's a [son of] Pulpit, and that would have been the worst possible thing we could have done for him mentally. It was an easy decision, we both concurred. It's a natural thing for an owner to want to run back and defend his horse."

Fly Down, owned by Richard Pell, will be making his first start in a Triple Crown race in the Belmont. Zito again noted the breeding of Fly Down − a son of Mineshaft, who didn't make it to the races until April of his 3-year-old season − necessitated patience.

Fly Down won his second start, a 1 1/16-mile maiden race at Churchill Downs in November. He was going through a growth spurt early in 2010, and Zito had to wait until the end of February to run him. On Feb. 21, Fly Down won a first-level allowance race at Gulfstream going 1 1/8 miles.

Zito gave Fly Down his chance to prove himself worthy of a trip to the Kentucky Derby by running him in the Louisiana Derby. But Fly Down never took to the Fair Grounds surface and finished ninth.

"When he won that allowance race,

everybody assumed we'd run him in the Florida Derby," Zito said, referring to the Grade 1 race at Gulfstream that was run four weeks after the allowance win. "I told Rich, 'You can't, and the reason you can't is he's going to need more time.' ''

Zito said after Louisiana Derby some thought was given to running in the

Preakness, but the decision was made to run in the Dwyer, where Fly Down blossomed with a six-length victory.

"When he won the Dwyer, we were back in business for the Belmont," Zito said. "He's by Mineshaft; he's a late developing horse. You try to do what's right for the horse."

If there are any reservations to be had about Zito's two Belmont runners, it is that both like to come from well off the pace. The pace of the Belmont doesn't generally play to a closer's style, though Jazil came from last to win in 2006, the last time,

before this year, the Belmont did not have the Kentucky Derby winner and Preakness winner in the field.

Pace or no pace, Zito said, he will not change his horse's running styles.

"You've got to let them have their natural gait, whatever their natural gait is," Zito said. "Both horses run extremely well from off the pace. You can't change your horse's style. You've got to play cards you're dealt. If not, thrown them back in.''