A race only a mudder could love

May 08, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The rains kept coming back to Churchill Downs, one, two, three major storms rolling over the racetrack as the long afternoon ticked-tocked toward the Kentucky Derby.

"No problem," said Nick Zito, Nicky Z himself, hanging out in the musty office at the end of barn 42 on the backside.

Raindrops hammered onto the barn roof with a mighty roar, cascaded down to the ground in rivulets, gathered in sprawling puddles at the foot of the barn. Go For Gin, Zito's Derby horse, took it slow in the end stall.

Zito kept his head dry, his eye on the dark sky and his smile lighted.

"No problem at all," he said.

Every other trainer with a horse in the race was sitting there jittery, defensive, hopeful more than confident.

"Can your horse run in the slop?" someone asked Charlie Whittingham.

"Oh, sure," Whittingham said. "Sure, no problem."

They all said it, again and again they said it. But without conviction. Without any force. Their eyes gave them away. They didn't know. They were just hoping they were right. Their horses had little experience with sloppy-track racing.

But Zito? Yo, how about it? Nicky Z, the pride of New York, New York, was sitting there with the goods.

"If there was one thing we knew, it's that he was a mudder," Zito said after winning his second Derby in four years when Go For Gin blew away the field with a two-length win that was easier than the margin indicated. "He practically lived in the mud for awhile there."

Of his nine career races before yesterday, Go For Gin had run five on tracks that were less than perfect, three in a row in the mud at one point last fall. His record in the five races? Two wins, and three seconds, the wins by nine and 10 lengths.

The 13 other horses in the race, combined, had run only slightly more than twice as many off-track races as Go For Gin.

"I'd be a fool not to say that the sloppy racetrack wasn't a huge factor," Zito said. "But we can't put a dome over the racetrack. We can't ask God not to let it rain."

He would never admit it, of course, but if Nicky Z was asking God for anything yesterday, he was asking for the clouds to stay in place, the rains to keep coming, the mud to keep flying.

His horse wasn't the best on a dry track, at least probably not. The slop was his chance.

"Sometimes the best horse doesn't win the big race," Zito said. "Sometimes the best horse on the right day wins the big race."

For Go For Gin, the right day was the first sloppy-track Derby in 46 years.

"My horse was slipping and sliding," said Pat Day, who rode Tabasco Cat.

"The rain made everybody's job harder," said Jerry Bailey, who rode Blumin Affair.

"We had no problem," said Chris McCarron, who scored his second Derby win on a horse he was riding for the first time.

Zito had told McCarron to keep Go For Gin close to the front, fearing that favored Holy Bull would get loose on the lead. Holy Bull broke slowly, got cut off immediately and never challenged. McCarron sent Go For Gin toward the lead anyway, and, almost effortlessly, the bay colt took the lead passing the grandstand for the first time.

"I didn't mind because he made it so easily," McCarron said. "I couldn't believe how easily he went."

And, believe it or not, that was the race. The Derby usually is a complicated puzzle with all sorts of key moments and traffic-related decisions, but this one had none of that. This one -- was a no-brainer. Go For Gin took the lead from Ulises coming out of the first turn, and never gave it back. Never even came close to giving it back.

Powis Castle and Smilin Singin Sam took kamikaze runs at him up the backstretch, then blew out. Whittingham's horse, Strodes Creek, made a strong late run to finish second and prove his mettle. But no other horse was within four lengths of Go For Gin at the wire. Holy Bull, who quit in the lane and finished 12th, was 18 lengths away.

Not since Spend a Buck went wire-to-wire in 1985 has a Derby winner so completely outclassed the field.

"I was pretty sure we were going to win at the head of the lane," co-owner William Condren said.

That didn't keep Zito from going bonkers as the horse headed for home, praising God and America, blowing kisses to the sky and pounding any shoulder within reach.

"Watching a race with Nick is kind of dangerous," Condren said. "Sometimes, you have to worry about survival."

Then there was Zito talking about how he had known the horse was going to run big after a workout last Sunday, how everyone had underestimated the horse, how everything made sense in retrospect.

But what really made sense was the horse and the rain and the first Saturday in May, a perfect set of circumstances for a happy mudder's day.

"What can I say?" Nicky Z said. "You gotta be lucky in this game."

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