Derby shine comes off Strike the Gold

JOHN EISENBERG

May 19, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

The owners of Strike the Gold had so much fun celebrating their Kentucky Derby victory in Louisville that they invited dozens of their friends and family to join them for the Preakness. The group gathered outside the colt's barn after the race yesterday, wearing pink Strike the GFold hats and bright Strike the Gold buttons and enough finery to fill a Sunday morning service. Only one thing was missing from the party: smiles.

But there was no reason to smile, of course. This was nothing like Louisville. Strike the Gold flopped miserably yesterday in his first appearance as a Derby champion. He started poorly and finished in sixth place, never approaching the leaders, crossing the finish line ahead of only two long shots, 11 1/2 lengths behind the winner, Hansel.

Let's not hint around here. It was one of the worst performances ever by a Derby winner in the Preakness. Listen to this: In the 72 years since the first Triple Crown was won in 1919, only seven Derby winners have finished farther back in the Preakness. Three finished seventh, one eighth, one ninth, one 10th and one 12th. And now there is Strike the Gold. Sixth. A Serious bomb. A classic stinker.

"He just didn't run today," trainer Nick Zito said.

Why? There are no secrets. He just wasn't the same horse that won the Derby. Not nearly. He got caught in traffic a little on the backstretch, but it was nothing compared with the choking traffic he swooped around in the Derby. No, he just resembled an old car yesterday instead of the new one that won the Derby. At the point in the Derby when the colt was accelerating, he was stalling out yesterday.

"He was pinned in on the fence, and he didn't like it, but there was room there to maneuver," jockey Chris Antley said. "We were in the position I wanted to be, on the rail with options. But then I asked him to go at the three-quarters pole, and..."

And nothing happened. He stalled out. The Derby winner had nothing. And Zito's worst fears were realized. The New York trainer had defended his horse all week against a solid stream of criticism that Gold was a weak Derby winner, that the colt had merely picked the right day to run well against a weak field in Louisville.

Among the things Zito said during the week: "He's got a chance to be one of the best 3-yeear-olds ever. You heard it here first." And: People who discredit this horse will be sorry." And: "Come Saturday they'll be bunched up around the far turn and here'll come Strike the Gold. That's what'll happen."

Well. The other horses were indeed bunched up around the far turn. But not for long. Hansel just blew everyone away, runnning away with the race as a Triple Crown contender might, winning by seven lengths. Strike the Gold just never made a move. And afterward Zito stood in front of the barn and the people with the hats and buttons, and he shrugged and he smiled and he kept defending his horse.

"He's a great horse, still a great horse," Zito said. "We're going to New York, and we'll be fine. He'll run big in the Belmont. What happened today, it's just racing. The winner is a great horse, too. It was his day. I knew we were in trouble on the backstretch. The race just wasn't breaking right. You could see [Gold] wouldn't be able to go outside, and wouldn't be able to bull through. Sure, it's disappointing. It hurts. But you just come back again."

How the colt fares in the Belmont will be interesting indeed, and could say a lot about the issue that so raises Zito's ire: whether the colt is a champion of lasting mettle or a one-shot winner along the lines of Winning Colors, the filly who win the 1988 Derby, but never won another race before being retired.

It is too soon to say that Strike the Gold is another Winning Colors. One poor performance is not sufficient grounds for such an accustion. And don't be surprised if it surfaces that Zito was unhappy with Antley's ride, getting caught on the rail, from where few horses had won lately at Pimlico. "He was catching a lot of dirt...." Zito said.

But it's no excuse. Horses are no different from other athletes: They have good and bad days, and Hansel, who finished a dull 10th in the Derby before rebounding so brilliantly yesterday, is proof of that. Strike the Gold could bounce back in the Belmont. Why not? He came out of the race fine yesterday.

But if ther colt fares poorly again in the Belmont, the whispers will grow louder and louder that Zito's horse is indeed something of a paper champion as Derby winners go. Yesterday's performance was that awful. It is true that the colt will always be a Derby winner, a compliment unequaled in this game, but after yesterday there must be questions raised. You don't throw a party without smiles and not ask questions.

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