- Bill Finley
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The Belmont Stakes may not have the Kentucky Derby or Preakness winners, but it might just include the best 3-year-old in America. Ice Box is that good, and he should win Saturday.
I am convinced that he would have won the Kentucky Derby had he had anything but a nightmarish trip. Instead, he had to settle for second after he spent key parts of his trip around the Churchill Downs track bottled up, getting squeezed and having to steady sharply. His strong effort wasn't entirely unexpected; he blossomed in the Florida Derby and won that race with a powerful stretch run.
He comes into the Belmont fresh and dangerous. Since the Derby, trainer Nick Zito has been lying in wait, gearing up the improving 3-year-old for a prime effort. It's a classic Zito pattern, and the same one he used in 2004 to stun Smarty Jones with Birdstone, who was eighth in the Derby. He knows how to win big races, particularly the Belmont Stakes, a race he also won with Da'Tara, and he knows how to win big races with fresh horses.
Maybe Ice Box won't improve. The thing is, he doesn't need to. The field for the Belmont is a lackluster one, making it a much weaker race than the Derby was. Ice Box and Stately Victor are the only Grade 1 winners in the field. There are four horses in the field who have won only one race each during their careers.
The only knock on Ice Box is his running style. He drops way back early and comes with one run. That's a good way to try to win the Derby, a race that normally has a hotly contested pace that sets up the race for deep closers. It's rarely the right style for the Belmont, where the early pace is usually slow and front-runners can be particularly dangerous. The pace scenario could be particularly significant in this race because of the lack of speed types in the field. Jose Lezcano is going to need to ride a smart race. There's no way Ice Box will be near the front, but he can't allow him to drop back a dozen or more lengths if the field crawls through an opening half-mile in 49 seconds.
Like many handicappers, the only horse I can see beating Ice Box is First Dude. He is coming off a remarkable race in the Preakness, where he set the pace through surprisingly fast fractions. He had every right to start packing it in at the quarter-pole, but instead battled all the way to the wire and lost by just three-quarters of a length. On paper, it appears he will have everything his own way in the Belmont. Who's going to run with him early on?
But there's no guarantee he will run back to that race. In fact, he probably won't. He is coming back in three weeks off what was by far the best race of his career. Two starts earlier, he was beaten by 6¼ lengths when facing Ice Box in the Florida Derby. He's unlikely to take another forward step and is a serious bounce candidate.
Here's how I will play the race: Two $50 exactas, Ice Box over Fly Down and Ice Box over Game On Dude.
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Richard Migliore may not have won a Belmont Stakes, but he was one of the smartest, toughest riders the New York scene has seen in years. Migliore, 46, announced his retirement Wednesday prior to the Belmont Stakes draw. For a guy who loved what he did and wanted to keep going, it was a difficult thing to do. In early May, he had surgery to repair multiple fractured vertebrae, which turned out to be a career-ending problem. His doctor told him he could never ride again.
You know it had to be a serious problem because Migliore is the kind of guy who always wants to battle his way back. He had been hurt numerous times and some of the injuries would have stopped most people. Not him.
He won 4,450 races, including 25 Grade 1 races, and his mounts earned $160 million. He didn't always get the most glamorous mounts, but when he was healthy he was as good as anyone around.
Migliore may need some time to figure out what he wants to do, but whatever it is he figures to be good at it. He's dedicated, a hard worker and bright, three tools that add up to success.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.