Second in the Derby, third in the Preakness, can trainer Nick Zito win the Belmont?
BALTIMORE -- All Nick Zito wanted this season was a little peace. He could find it, he figured, by winning these big races -- the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness or the Belmont Stakes -- because that's what all great horsemen aim for.
The raspy-voiced Hall of Fame trainer got something else; same pronunciation, different spelling: a piece of each Triple Crown classic so far. First he sent out Ice Box, who tangled with traffic in the Derby and came running late for second. Then he saddled Jackson Bend, who yesterday finished third in the Preakness after being boxed in on the rail.
"It's been up and down," Zito said outside the stakes barn at Pimlico on Sunday morning. "It's a lot of rewarding things and you try to put everything in the proper perspective, but it's so hard because you want it. On the other hand, you've gotta be thankful and grateful how good they run and how good they come back. So you've gotta look at the positive. But it's frustrating."
Around the wide, sweeping turns of New York's "Big Sandy," Belmont Park, Zito could finally find his satisfaction. With the absence of Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver -- who finished eighth in the Preakness and will not run again until the Aug. 1 Haskell at Monmouth or Aug. 28 Travers at Saratoga -- and with Preakness victor Lookin at Lucky shipping back to California to regroup while targeting the Haskell as well, the June 5 Belmont is Zito's race to lose.
"A lot of people are saying we're the horses to beat, if we run two horses," he said. "But you know, three weeks is an eternity. It's a lifetime, three weeks, even if you go back to the Derby and [remember] what happened with Rule and Eskendereya, and that poor girl's horse, Endorsement. But right now we're sitting pretty good; we've got two horses that will definitely run a mile and a half. You know Ice Box will be the favorite, so it's good to go in there with the favorite."
A host of newcomers to the Triple Crown scene will take on the Belmont, including Zito trainee Fly Down, an impressive six-length winner of the Dwyer Stakes on May 8.
"He's very interesting and coming around at the right time, and hopefully you know the Belmont will be his [kind of race] if he runs," Zito said. "Everything has to go just right; he's certainly a live candidate, but it's a long way off."
Zito said Jackson Bend came out of his race Saturday in good order, but would likely not target the Belmont and would take a rest at Zito's base in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., after running in the Preakness off a 12th-place effort in the Derby.
"He's a tough little horse, isn't he?" Zito said. "You can say it a thousand times: very, very, very tough. He came out of the race great. He wants to fight, all the time. He's something, boy."
The Bill Mott-trained Drosselmeyer, second to Fly Down in the Dwyer, has been confirmed for a start in the Belmont. First Dude, runner-up in the Preakness, is also likely, along with fifth-place finisher Dublin. Among other probable starters are Bob Baffert trainee Game on Dude; Uptowncharlybrown from the barn of new trainer Kiaran McLaughlin; the Richard Mandella-trained Setsuko; and New Madrid, trained by Tim Ice, who conditioned last year's Belmont winner, Summer Bird. Make Music for Me, Stately Victor and Stay Put are also on the list of potential contenders provided by the New York Racing Association. Also included is Todd Pletcher trainee Devil May Care, the filly who ran 10th in the Derby, although Pletcher said Sunday she is "unlikely" to start.
In the 1½ miles of the Belmont, Zito said he's hoping for a clean trip and the same racing luck that brought him upsets in 2004 with Birdstone and 2008 with Da' Tara.
"There's a lot of room to roam at Belmont, so we'll see what happens," he said. "The past few races have been frustrating, but it's also rewarding because you know you're in the big game, you know you're in the big races, and our help and everybody else that's around me does a great job, and that's what counts. We've got a good organization; you give us the horse, we're gonna try to get there."
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the Thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse magazine, the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.