SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Yes, this is the same fellow who won the Kentucky Derby with Strike the Gold. Nick Zito still punctuates thoughts with "Ya know what I'm sayin'?" He still jokes about Baltimore the jinx town, "where Dracula lives" and where "everything that could've gone wrong did." He still rationalizes. He still prattles. He still charms.
Problem is, Strike the Gold still has as many wins as he did the morning after the Derby. The Alydar colt, winless in three starts since, is staring 0-for-4 in the face despite his likely role as the favorite in today's 122nd Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course.
Strike the Gold is the first Derby winner to run in the Travers since Alysheba in 1987, which lends stature to "The Mid-Summer Derby." His own stature is in need of a boost. Since he finished sixth in the Preakness, second in the Belmont Stakes and third in the Jim Dandy Stakes, other 3-year-olds have redeemed themselves with various triumphs, threatening Strike the Gold's supremacy atop the class.
The $1 million Travers, a focal point for Zito since the Triple Crown ended, also has been a target for the trainers of other top colts. That's why the 1 1/4 -mile race has developed into a critical event in the 1991 season. Five of the six Travers starters should draw similarly strong support in the wagering, with only Tong Po lacking a groundswell.
Zito and part-owner B. Giles Brophy said yesterday that they are frustrated that the Derby champion has not added to his three career victories. There are reasons for the skein, they said, and one led them to replace Chris Antley with Angel Cordero Jr. Zito was particularly annoyed when discussing Antley's history on the horse.
"Most people you talk to will say it was jockey error that's been costing him," he said. "He got him boxed in during the Preakness, and he got so far out of it in the Jim Dandy he had no chance to be close."
While Antley salvaged a mount with the Maryland-based outsider, Tong Po, Cordero's presence is the accepted reason for Strike the Gold to be a slight favorite over Hansel. Although Hansel defeated him in their past two meetings, and both were equally mediocre in third-place finishes in their respective last starts, Cordero's reputation as the Saratoga kingpin and current status as the meet's leading rider are expected to sway the betting public.
With Antley, Strike the Gold's old silks also got the boot. Because Brophy owns the colt in equal partnership with Joseph Cornacchia and William Condren in the BCC Gold Stable, Brophy's blue-and-pink silks are being replaced with a new gold-and-white pattern, a change designed to give recognition to his partners.
Meanwhile, life has been less complicated in the Hansel camp. Although the colt's latest effort in the Haskell Invitational was reminiscent of his disappointment in the Derby, trainer Frank Brothers is confident he can rebound.
Critical to Hansel's chances could could be the race's early stages: In each of his six career losses, he has led at no point. In the Derby and the Haskell, he was rank when in tight quarters entering the first turn. After the colt drew post No. 2, Brothers said: "I would have preferred an outside post, but it's a long run to the turn. I'm hoping the field will fan out and we'll be OK."
The Strike the Gold-Hansel rematch is the first in the Travers in four years among winners of separate Triple Crown events. Java Gold won in 1987 over a sloppy track when Bet Twice [Belmont winner] ran fifth and Alysheba [Derby and Preakness] was sixth.
NOTES: Owner Bob Quinichett, on Tong Po's chances: "I believe he'll raise some eyebrows." From the colt's colorful trainer, Leon Blusiewicz: "I hope he's 30-1. I'll be down." . . . Expected early leader Corporate Report has post No. 4, outside of his likely chasers, Hansel and Fly So Free. "Hopefully, we can clear them )) going into the first turn," said assistant trainer Jeff Lukas. . . . Lost Mountain was a winner of just 1 prior race when he ran in the Derby as a 72-1 shot. The Cox's Ridge colt has since won 3 of 4 and is being tabbed as the "now" horse of his class. . . . Good news for 1990 2-year-old champion Fly So Free: The past 4 juvenile champs to run in the Travers have won. They were Chief's Crown (1985), Forty Niner (1988), Easy Goer (1989) and Rhythm (1990). . . . The most recent Horse of the Year to win the Travers: Arts and Letters (1969).