ELMONT, N.Y. -- A thick blanket of fog enveloped Belmont Park on Thursday morning, but as the morning wore on, it lifted, a fitting symbol of what has transpired with the New York Racing Association as its signature event, the Belmont Stakes, neared.
Until a recent deal by the New York state legislature to loan money to NYRA -- in anticipation of a long-delayed casino at Aqueduct -- there was the fear that racing in this state might have to take a hiatus, at least temporarily, sometime soon.
That pained trainer Nick Zito.
"It would have been a catastrophe," Zito said Thursday morning. "It's a lot better now."
Zito was standing along a rail near the training track at Belmont Park, watching Fly Down and Ice Box, his entrants in the 142nd Belmont Stakes on Saturday, go through a routine training session. Zito, a native New Yorker, is a two-time winner of the Belmont. He has seen every one for more than 40 years. "I remember back when I was a kid, Stage Door Johnny," he said of the 1968 winner.
To Zito, the Belmont represents one of the great races in America. So even though this year's race lacks the Kentucky Derby winner, Super Saver, and the Preakness winner, Lookin At Lucky, Zito thinks the Belmont, the final leg of the Triple Crown, stands on its own, no matter who runs.
"It's big," he said. "It's still the Belmont. It's a classic race. It's the Belmont."
The Belmont, worth $1 million, is the longest of the Triple Crown races, one lap around Belmont Park's 1 1/2-mile main track. This year, a field of 12 is entered, and Zito will have two of the top betting choices in the race. Ice Box, who finished second in the Kentucky Derby, is the morning-line favorite of both Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper, and Eric Donovan of Belmont Park. Fly Down, who won the Dwyer Stakes four weeks ago, is the third choice on the lines of both pricemakers. First Dude, second last time out in the Preakness, is the second choice of both Watchmaker and Donovan.
Last year, the Belmont proved to be a preview of coming attractions. Summer Bird won the race, and went on to capture the Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup and be named champion 3-year-old male. With no clear-cut leader among this year's 3-year-old males, the Belmont could prove pivotal. Ice Box, in particular, would move to the head of the class with a win, considering he also won the Florida Derby earlier this year before running second in the Kentucky Derby.
Ice Box is a high-strung colt who manages to harness that energy in his races. He is a deep closer who had a well-chronicled tough trip in the Derby.
"Ice Box has a tremendous personality," Zito said. "He's a fiery little horse. I've always believed in him. Sometimes it doesn't work out, but I've always believed in him. I was so happy when he came around."
Fly Down comes off a powerful victory in the Dwyer. That was only his fifth start, and only his second stakes race. He was ninth in the Louisiana Derby on March 27, a performance that removed him from consideration for the Kentucky Derby.
"Maybe he wasn't ready for those horses then," Zito said. "He's a quality horse. You try to build up a lot of miles as you go along. You need owners that are patient. That's our system, to try to go long. But you have to have the players. I hope it's a dead heat."
To win the race, they likely will have to catch First Dude, who figures to use the same front-running tactics he employed in the Preakness.
Dale Romans, the trainer of First Dude, is a kindred spirit with Zito when it comes to the Belmont.
"It's a classic," Romans said. "There's only three of them. The thought process of skipping these races is unbelievable. You better take your shot, unless you've got a good reason. You don't want to skip a classic with a horse like this. He's a big horse, a throwback."
There is no horse in this year's Belmont who will have run in all three legs of the Triple Crown. But even though both Super Saver and Lookin At Lucky are skipping the Belmont after running in the Derby and Preakness, their trainers have understudies to their stars. Todd Pletcher, the trainer of Super Saver, will send out Interactif, while Bob Baffert, who trains Lookin At Lucky, has brought in Game On Dude.
Interactif has not raced since finishing fourth in the Blue Grass Stakes eight weeks ago. Game On Dude, a son of Awesome Again, won the Lone Star Derby on May 8 in his second start since being purchased privately and transferred to Baffert.
Drosselmeyer was a distant second to Fly Down in the Dwyer. He has a following. Drosselmeyer has been favored in 6 of his 8 starts, and never has been more than 6-1. Earlier this week, he was training in bar shoes to protect tender soles on his front feet, but trainer Bill Mott said they would be removed for the race.
Make Music for Me, fourth in the Derby, is seeking to make his trainer, Alexis Barba, the first woman to train a Triple Crown race winner.
Stately Victor, the Blue Grass winner, was eighth in the Derby. Uptowncharlybrown is making his first start for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin following the death of the colt's original trainer, Alan Seewald. He is removing blinkers for this race.
Dave in Dixie is winless in four starts since defeating maidens. Spangled Star was third in the Withers in his last start.
The Belmont is the 11th race on a 13-race card that begins at 11:35 a.m. Eastern. It is the final leg of pick six and pick four wagers that each consist entirely of stakes races and offer guaranteed pools of $1 million. Post time is 6:32 p.m.
The supporting stakes, three of which are Grade 1, include horses such as Gio Ponti, a two-time Eclipse Award winner last year, and Bribon, last year's Metropolitan Mile winner.
ABC will telecast the Belmont, beginning at 5 p.m. The undercard races scheduled between noon and 5 p.m. will be seen on ESPN.
The weather forecast has worsened as the week has progressed. It is projected to be warm and muggy on Saturday, with a high temperature of 85 degrees and a 60-percent chance of scattered thunderstorms.