Derby win means Zito's the same, only different


May 17, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

You are Nick Zito and you still have the same silver-gray hair and five-boroughs scratch in your voice, but people expect you to be different now. They look at you with wise, little smiles and expect you to wink and admit you always knew you had a rare touch with a horse. But you just can't do it.

"You won the Kentucky Derby," they tell you.

"No," you say, "my horse won the Kentucky Derby."

You know people don't believe this humility. You know the customary American response is to grab your 15 minutes and shout your name out loud. What was it Rickey Henderson said when he broke Lou Brock's record? "I am the greatest of all time." As if we didn't know. Yeah. That's what people are accustomed to hearing.

They don't understand, though. They just don't know what you know. They don't know that this game is different, that you can't shout your name out loud, not even after you win the Kentucky Derby. They don't know that this game humbles everyone, everyone, and that you are only as smart as your horse is fast.

They don't know that you lose a lot more than you win in this game. You know. You have lost enough to know. You are only 43, but you have been hanging around the barns in New York since you were 15. Since that first day you walked through gate 15 at Aqueduct and got a job walking horses in Buddy Jacobsen's barn. That was 28 years ago. Twenty-eight.

So you have been around. Have you ever. And the funny part is that people are calling you a fresh, new face. Because you'd never run a horse in the Derby until last year. Nicky Zee, the new trainer. Ha. They should do their homework.

You got out of high school in Queens and you worked for Buddy Jacobsen and Johnny Campo and Leroy Jolley, and then you struck out by yourself in 1973, bought a horse named Big Red Devil, paid Campo $18,000 and won five times that much. That was 18 years ago. Eighteen.

A fresh, new face. Ha. What do people think you were doing between 1973 and these last couple of years? They just blip right over it, like it didn't happen, like it was just so much prologue. One sentence for 15 years. You had to live it.

You were going to school, of course. That's what you were doing. You were sniffing sunrises, making mistakes, hustling, building a stable. For 15 years. A lot of years. And you were a wise guy. That's the description you like to use now. "I was a wise guy," you say. You'd get smart when you won. Too smart.

So you learned that the game humbles. Then you finally got lucky last year and made it to the Derby with Thirty Six Red. You played the rookie, toured the Derby Museum, had a party. But you'd made a mistake and raced your horse too much, and he ran flat, and your buddies back in the barns in New York told you about it. "Overdid it, Nicky," they said.

So you got lucky again this year, really lucky, and got Strike the Gold. And the horse kept getting better and better, and you looked up to the sky and said hosannas. You knew there were people who'd been in this game a lot longer without getting such a chance. And here you were, Nicky Zee from Ozone Park, everyone wanting to talk to you.

People said you must be getting smarter, and you were -- you weren't going to wear this horse out before the Derby -- but you also knew deep down that you're only as smart as your horse is fast. And this was a fast horse. Faster and faster and faster all the time.

So you got to Louisville and, bingo, lost your cool. Couldn't help it. You thought you had the winner and you didn't want to make another mistake. You started yelling at the grooms, raising all sorts of ruckus. You didn't want to go back to New York and have your buddies tell you you'd done wrong. Or worse, not tell you but keep it to themselves forever.

But then the horse went and won the race, of course, and there you were on television pointing to the sky telling God to show you the way. You're no apostle, but you knew a blessing when you saw one. You know what you're doing, but you also know there are better trainers who will never win a Derby. "I'm just Nick Zito," you keep saying.

So now everyone expects you to be different. To wink and shout your name and take credit. And you will admit there is this little sensation down in your stomach that wasn't there before. A tingle. Probably won't ever go away. "I will always have won the Kentucky Derby," you say.

And OK, yeah, you will take some credit. You know you deserve it. Those were your hands on the horse. Your ideas put to practice. But you aren't going to be different. You just can't. You know about the trainers who got one big horse and their 15 minutes, and then you never heard from them again. It happens. There are no laws governing these things. Your horse breaks down, you aren't so smart anymore.

So you don't shout your name. You just keep working. You ride in the van with the colt from Louisville to Baltimore, talk to him for 14 hours. You don't get smart. "I'm just Nick Zito," you keep saying. Nicky Zee from Ozone Park. You won't change. Naw. You're still young, but you've been around too long. You know the score. "Mostly I'm just grateful," you say. "I just thank 'The Man.' "

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