NEW YORK — No one is in more of a New York state of mind these days than Nick Zito.
And why not?
The Brooklyn-born Hall of Fame trainer will be looking for his third win in six years in the $1 million Belmont Stakes on Saturday, and he has two of the three favorites for the final leg of the Triple Crown.
Ice Box, the Florida Derby winner who staged a tremendous rally to finish second in the Kentucky Derby, is the 3-1 morning-line choice. Fly Down, a lightly raced colt who blew away the field by six lengths in winning the Dwyer last month, is the 9-2 third choice.
The 142nd running of the Belmont may lack Derby winner Super Saver and Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky, but Zito says the Belmont is, well, the Belmont.
"It's big," he said. "It's a classic race. It's the Belmont."
Zito's pair tops a field of 12 3-year-old colts and geldings who will try to ace racing's "Test of the Champion," a 1½-mile lap around Belmont Park in the longest of the Triple Crown races.
"It's a tricky kind of race," Zito said. "Our horses are fine with the distance, we just want to see if they kick in. You have to fire at the right time, too."
First Dude poses a huge threat as the 7-2 second choice. Probably the biggest horse in the field — he stands 17 hands tall — the colt trained by Dale Romans is coming off a gallant runner-up effort in the Preakness.
"The Belmont will be this horse's race because he wants to go a mile and a half," Romans said, "and he'll love the track."
First Dude, along with Game on Dude and Uptowncharlybrown, are candidates to set the early pace, while Zito's colts have a similar come-from-behind style.
A hot and muggy day is forecast, with temperatures in the mid-80s and a 50 percent chance of scattered thunderstorms.
The New York Racing Association is hoping for a crowd approaching last year's 52,000, which showed up for Summer Bird's win without a Triple Crown on the line.
The rest of the Belmont field is filled with long shots, but don't discount the chances of 10-1 shots Game On Dude, Make Music for Me and Uptowncharlybrown.
Lone Star Derby winner Game On Dude is trained by Bob Baffert, who saw his three Triple Crown attempts fall short in the Belmont but owns a Belmont with Point Given in 2001.
"It's sort of wide open," Baffert says. "We're all within five lengths of each other. It's whoever can go the mile and a half, that's what it comes down to."
As Fly Down's jockey John Velazquez said: "This track can be very deceiving. You have to know where you are. Sometimes it isn't easy. And you have to have a good horse who can run that far."
Although this field is far from vintage — four starters have only a maiden win and just two have a Grade 1 win — there are several other intriguing story lines:
—Make Music for Me closed strongly to finish fourth in the Derby, and gives Alexis Barba a chance to become the first female trainer to win a Triple Crown race.
"I enjoy the moment as it comes," Barba said. "I don't look at it in terms of gender. If I'm the first woman to win it, that's a bonus."
—Uptowncharlybrown, third in the Lexington Stakes in April in his last start, will attempt to raise the spirits of principal owner Bob Hutt and 58 other partners following the recent death of the colt's trainer, Alan Seewald. 'Charly' is now trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, who won the 2006 Belmont with Jazil.
"Just before he died," recalled Hutt, "he said, 'Bob, we're going to win the Belmont and then we're going to win the Haskell. We're going to be the last horse standing."
Zito, though, has become a fan favorite and a major force in the Belmont.
His first starter was Morning Bob, who ran third to Swale in 1984. His 22 starters entering Saturday's race have produced two wins, six seconds and three thirds.
The trainer may be a two-time Kentucky Derby winner, but there's no doubt he loves winning the Belmont in front a cheering crowd of New Yorkers.
"New York, it has a lot of different aspects, it's a big, big place," Zito said. "New York is America, no matter how you look at it. It's big for us if we could do well again. I'd be gratified by it, very appreciative."
While Zito is back for another Belmont try, Sinatra's "New York, New York" is out as the song that accompanies the horses onto the track before the race. Sinatra's classic version during the post parade is being replaced by Alicia Keys' version of Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind."
The new song, says NYRA marketing director Neema Ghazi has become a "quintessential 21st century theme song for New York City."