Zito likes rubbing elbows with racetrack royalty 116th Preakness

May 16, 1991|By Marty McGee

Nick Zito knelt before the queen, nodding and smiling, doing his best to show deference. Photographers clicked madly; cameramen zoomed in.

Everybody laughed. It wasn't really Queen Elizabeth II, merely a cardboard replica. Pimlico Race Course officials thought it would be a great gag for the current king of horse racing to meet the queen while she was in town -- even if it was only make-believe.

Zito has relished the role of racetrack "royalty," one traditionally bestowed on the trainer of the Kentucky Derby winner. He said he has not taken it lightly, certainly not for granted. "I might have been a wise guy 10 years ago," he said, "but I've learned this game will humble kings. I'm blessed to be in this position."

In that vein, Zito, 43, has been careful not to come off as being any different than he was before the Derby. He said he doesn't want to offend anyone.

"Maybe I should send a letter to the queen to tell her there was no disrespect intended," he said of the mock shed-row meeting. "She's a special person and a gracious woman. I wasn't trying to be comical. But we can't all be stuffy all the time, you know. It was just in fun."

Strike the Gold had his fun in the Derby, winning by 1 3/4 lengths over Best Pal. Now, Zito is zeroing in on a similar result for Saturday's 116th Preakness, in which Strike the Gold will face seven other horses. Entries will be drawn today shortly after 10 a.m.

Speculation about whether Strike the Gold, owned by B. Giles Brophy and partners, will be the betting favorite caused a mild furor yesterday. To suggest that he will not be, said rival trainer D. Wayne Lukas, "borders on the ridiculous."

But Zito, having seen the line in The Sun that has Olympio slightly favored over his colt, said: "I can understand why. I'll be honest, though, and maybe Olympio shouldn't be favored over my horse.

"The thing is, anything that discredits my horse is what gets me upset. If Olympio is the favorite, that won't really discredit [Strike the Gold]. In general, I don't see anybody discrediting my horse. It doesn't make sense to, and, besides, it's wrong."

Zito said there is pressure to win the Preakness -- and then there isn't.

"Not to downgrade the Preakness or the Belmont, but the Derby is the ultimate prize in racing," he said. "Once you've gotten that off your back, how can you not relax?

"Before the Derby, I was uptight. You get uptight knowing you have the goods. You have the best horse, and you want to make sure you don't make a mistake."

Zito has come a long way from earlier days on the racetrack. A native New Yorker who now lives in Garden City, N.Y., he went to work as a hot walker at 15.

I've gotten an opportunity," Zito said. "So many good trainers don't get this opportunity."

To win, he will have to rally past most of the field, as he did in the Derby.

Olympio, Best Pal, Hansel and Corporate Report have better early speed. Whadjathink and Mane Minister also should be ahead of Strike the Gold in the early stages. Even Honor Grades, sharpened by a five-furlong blowout Tuesday, is liable to show improved early speed.

For Strike the Gold, the Preakness could come to this: Go last-to-first. Circle them, as in the Derby, or weave your way through. Pass one horse, then another, then another. . . .

The last time a Preakness winner rallied from last was in 1974, when Little Current did it.

Zito said he does not care.

"You can't change a horse's style for one race," he said. "The Santa Anita Derby, the Wood Memorial, the Blue Grass, they're all 1 1/8 miles. The Preakness is longer than them. It's 1 3/16 miles. It's not a short race.

"I see my horse getting the 1 3/16 miles. I see him somehow getting there. This is the Kentucky Derby winner. He's special. He's got a strong will. The other horses, they had no excuses" in the Derby.

Royalty has its privileges. For one thing, you can say you have the best horse, and no one will disagree. After the Preakness, Nick Zito's reign as king of the racing world either will be finished or will extend another three weeks, to the June 8 Belmont Stakes.

Or it could extend even further.

"This colt has the chance to be one of the greatest 3-year-olds ever," said Zito. "You heard it right here."

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