LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Nick Zito wants to compare Strike the Gold to Alysheba. Let him indulge. There are enough similarities for a pre-Derby mix of a little realism, a little dreaming and a lot of hope.
Alysheba, racing's all-time leader in money earnings, won the Kentucky Derby four years ago. It was, officially, his second career victory. He had won the Blue Grass Stakes in his final start before the Derby but was disqualified for a bumping incident.
Now, Strike the Gold, trained by Zito, enters off a win in the Blue Grass, his second career victory.
Alysheba was sired by Alydar. Strike the Gold was sired by Alydar. Alysheba was just finding himself by the time spring rolled around. Strike the Gold, Zito insists, is just beginning to let his ability be shown.
In fact, Strike the Gold has progressed so well that he will be one of the four favorites in Saturday's 117th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
"He has the untapped potential that Alysheba had," Zito said yesterday morning. "He's coming up to this lightly raced. That's what wins the Derby."
Strike the Gold, who has run seven times, was a virtual non-entity until Feb. 23, when he ran second to Cahill Road in a run-of-the-mill, first-rung allowance race at Gulfstream Park. That race, it turns out, was not your run-of-the-mill race: Cahill Road later won the Wood Memorial. And Strike the Gold went on to finish a closesecond to Fly So Free in the Florida Derby, then gained revenge with a three-length win over Fly So Free in the Blue Grass.
Zito is a 41-year-old Long Islander who has been on the racetrack since he was 15. He worked for Buddy Jacobsen, Johnny Campo and Leroy Jolley before he went out on his own. He has put in his time, and he has become a popular figure in racing.
Last year, Zito ran his first horse in the Derby -- Thirty Six Red. The colt finished ninth, but Zito's racetrack savvy told him that you lose a lot more than you win, and he accepted defeat graciously. There could be more chances, but he did not necessarily expect one to come the next year.
Strike the Gold has earned $378,810 and has a long way to go to become the next Alysheba, who retired in 1988 with a bankroll of $6,679,242. But Zito believes he is on the threshold of taking the first big step Alysheba took.
"He's caught and passed Fly So Free," he said. "He's doing super. I'm hopeful."
When asked about the possibility of a large Derby field hindering the colt's late surge, Zito said: "I think he'll be close enough early in the Derby. It'll be the same situation as in the Blue Grass when [jockey] Chris [Antley] had him right there. You can't change a horse's running style for one race."
The biggest knock against Strike the Gold is something he can't help. His Dosage index -- the value assigned to a horse's speed/stamina ratio based on its pedigree -- is 9.00. Since 1929, no horse has won the Derby with a Dosage higher than 4.00. Among the favorites, only Strike the Gold does not qualify.
"That doesn't mean anything with this horse," Zito said. "Obviously, there's something to Dosage, but I just don't think they've got Strike the Gold pegged right. They're wrong about the way they've got Alydar ranked.
"Aw, this whole thing will get down to racing luck. My horse is good enough to win. But the man upstairs has a lot to do with it. You just need the luck."
Preliminary odds set by Mike Battaglia, Churchill Downs oddsmaker:
Fly So Free 2-1
Strike the Gold 7-2
Best Pal 4-1
Corporate Report 12-1
Sea Cadet 12-1
Lost Mountain 50-1
Mane Minister 50-1
Green Alligator 50-1
*Mutuel field 50-1
*-field would include Another Review, Forty Something, Happy Jazz Band, Paulrus, Subordinated Debt and Wilder Than Ever.