Trainer Nick Zito was hardly a picture of serenity as he prepared Strike the Gold for the Kentucky Derby. In fact, his entire world teetered on the verge of collapse in the week leading to the pinnacle of his career.
He seemed overcome by the pressure of knowing his horse haa chance to win. He faced endless questions about a rating system that declared it could not. And, to complete his trifecta of doubts, he feared for his marriage.
Zito, 43, reports good news on all fronts as he points tSaturday's Preakness, but the episode reflects the enormous strain all horsemen face -- not just in winning big races, but in keeping their personal lives intact.
As Zito said, "If you did a study on marriages in a racetrack, yowould flip." The long hours and frequent travel often amount to insurmountable odds, even for couples who grow accustomed to the routine.
Zito apparently thought he had succumbed to those odds. Thday before the Derby, USA Today reported that he was bracing '' for his wife Jan to leave him after eight years. The newspaper quoted him saying, "I guess if I'm guilty of anything in my life it's this -- I'm a playboy."
Jan, the mother of Zito's 5-year-old daughter Sarah an7-year-old son Alexander, read the article as she flew to Kentucky. She knew it wasn't entirely accurate, and upon her arrival Nick noted, "She was the same Jan. She was in my corner. She knew what the deal was."
Whatever problems they had were resolved by the time of thrace. Jan wore a navy blue dress with gold trim that Nick bought her in Florida last winter, claiming, "You're going to need a nice outfit for the Derby." He was that certain about Strike the Gold.
Zito believes in things like destiny and fate -- he was the onpumping his fist toward heaven and shouting "Show me the way!" as the Derby ended. But a big horse can become an obsession, and this one is truly a special case.
By now the story is familiar: Zito was training Strike the Gold foCalumet Farm when the debt-plagued breeder informed him the colt was for sale. He convinced his three owners to buy the horse in a package with six yearlings. The price was seven figures. The rest is history.
On Dec. 1, Zito left with Strike the Gold for Florida, explaining tJan he would not return to their home in Garden City, N.Y., until after the Derby. But the way Jan tells it, this year actually was easier than most.
Zito had some extra money because of his success with ThirtSix Red, a horse that finished second in the Belmont Stakes and third in the Breeders' Cup Classic last year. He rented a house in Florida, and Jan and the kids stayed three months.
"I worked on the track. I know you don't take a day off when yowork on the racetrack," Jan said after arriving at Pimlico yesterday. "It's our lifestyle. We got married between races. We've never been on vacation."
Indeed, Jan works 60 hours a week herself, operating a ridinschool where her clients include the emotionally and physically handicapped. She won $4,000 by betting $100 on Strike the Gold with a Las Vegas futures book, and she plans to donate her winnings to United Cerebral Palsy for the development of a therapeutic riding program.
Zito speaks of her with admiration as well as affection. "She's good girl," he said. "She wants everything for us and the kids. Our marriage right now -- it's like we just got married. We never had a honeymoon, so this was like a honeymoon."
As USA Today reported, they are indeed selling their home, buonly because they want to take advantage of the housing market, not because they're getting divorced. For the record, both Zitos indicated they've overcome any differences. "We've been married eight years," Jan said. "We're not newlyweds."
"Everything is fine," Nick said. "When you go over the edge, it'like anything else. People have to work these things out. Unfortunately the Kentucky Derby was a pressure event, you know what I'm saying? But she was very supportive. She loves her family. She loves her husband. That's the end of that."
Suddenly, he is more relaxed. Strike the Gold's victory thrust hiinto racing's elite circle of trainers. It also ended the maddening questions about the Dosage Index, which offered the ludicrous doctrine that a son of Alydar could not win the Derby because of his ancestry.
Asked about Zito, Strike the Gold's groom, Tom Pellegrino, saidThe week before the Derby he was really on edge. The last three days he started to calm down. He was used up, burnt. After the Derby, I figured he'd get a big head. But he didn't. He's not even hollering. I'm getting ready to take his temperature."
In fact, Zito returned to earth the day after his enormous triump-- literally. Descending in an elevator from the 14th floor, he was joined by an elderly man on the 12th. The man thought Zito was the elevator operator. He said, "One, please."
"I know where it all is," Zito said. "Somebody told him to be thereif you know what I mean."