by | 11.17.2010 | 12:47am

Despite several defections from last week's projected field, our voters kept the top three of Ice Box, First Dude and Fly Down in order. Dublin's departure (previously ranked sixth) means that no horse will run in all three Triple Crown races since 2001. And Setsuko ankle inflammation kept what many thought would be a good betting choice from breaking our list.

Outside of our top three, Drosselmeyer was the only other projected Belmont entry to receive a first place vote. New to the chart is Spangled Star and Yawanna Twist while also dropping from the Paulick Belmont Index is Tim Ice's New Madrid.

By Ray Paulick

The Belmont Stakes has helped define greatness in the Thoroughbred. One need only look back to Secretariat's incredible 31-length victory in 1973, or the gut-check win by Affirmed over Alydar in 1978, the last year American racing has experienced the glow of a Triple Crown hero. Since then, the Belmont, at a mile and a half the longest of the three Triple Crown races, has been more about heartbreak. It has been where Triple Crown dreams have been destroyed.

Spectacular Bid, perhaps the greatest modern-day 3-year-old not to win the Triple Crown, was unlucky to lose the Belmont in 1979, getting a poorly judged ride from an overconfident and young jockey, Ron Franklin, and also said to have had a possible foot injury from a safety pin the morning of the race. He would have been the fourth Triple Crown winner of the 1970s, following in the footsteps of Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. Some complained it was getting almost too easy to sweep the series.

Then we were mesmerized by trainer Woody Stephens and his dominating run of five consecutive Belmont Stakes wins, from 1982 to 1986. It's one of those achievements that grows larger with time.

From 1987 to 2008, nine horses came to the Belmont with a chance to become the sport's 12th Triple Crown winner, and all failed to achieve that goal. There were some sound defeats (Bet Twice over Alysheba in 1987, Easy Goer over Sunday Silence in 1989, Sarava over War Emblem in 2002), some frightening moments (Charismatic suffering a near catastrophic injury at the wire in 1999, Big Brown being pulled up in 2008), but more often than not game efforts that came up just a little short (Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998, Funny Cide in 2003, Smarty Jones in 2004).

We won't have any of those moments in the 2010 Belmont Stakes, with no Triple Crown on the line and the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners absent from the starting lineup. We will have an exciting day, the kind of top-class racing program that has become synonymous with Belmont day, and a Grade 1 contest that will be a true handicapping challenge.

Will New York's own Hall of Fame conditioner, Nick Zito, win his third Belmont Stakes, with either Ice Box or Fly Down, a powerful duo, and join an elite group of trainers with three or more wins in the classic? Is the year and the race where Dale Romans, trainer of First Dude, gets a breakthrough victory on the Triple Crown stage.

My money will be on Zito. He is to New York racing in the 1990s and beyond what Woody Stephens was a quarter century ago. While some horsemen look at the Belmont as a race of declining importance, Zito sees it as New York's big dance, and it's one he'd rather not sit out.

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