Zito, the man of the hour, not caught in a rush PREAKNESS '94

May 15, 1994|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Sun Staff Writer

On Wednesday, the foot traffic was minimal around Pimlico's Stall 40 occupied by Kentucky Derby winner Go For Gin, with only a handful of local reporters and TV camera crews seeking out trainer Nick Zito.

But by week's end, Zito, a gregarious sort, was surrounded by the media horde, making the native New Yorker feel like he was trapped on the subway during rush hour.

Winning the Derby twice -- Zito won his first in 1991 with Strike The Gold -- has a way of drawing attention to a trainer.

But Zito, 46, keeps things in perspective.

"I hear people say, 'I knew Nick Zito when he was broke.' So what? I'm still broke," he said with a laugh.

After catching the racing bug from his father and breaking in as a hot walker at 15 at Aqueduct, only a few furlongs from his home in Ozone Park, Zito had the good fortune of meeting Woods Garth, a prominent Virginia trainer with a stable of quality horses.

Garth took a liking to the teen-ager and invited Zito to join him at Keeneland in Kentucky.

"I was a real city boy, running the streets, so when I got down to this bluegrass country, I was kind of awestruck," he said. "I

couldn't believe how lush the country was around Lexington."

Garth took Zito to his training center in Middleburg, Va.

"The place was like paradise, but I was used to the rumbling of the elevated train, walking to the corner to get the paper and a slice of pizza," he said. "In Middleburg, I had to walk five miles to a post office. I felt real isolated, and homesick. Like the Sinatra song, 'New York, New York,' the city was calling me back.' "

After a father-son chat with Garth, the trainer dropped Zito at a Greyhound bus stop with a $20 bill.

"I mean, this wasn't exactly the Port Authority," Zito said. "This was an old, dusty country lane, just a mark in the road for the bus stop. I waited almost four hours for that bus, but it seemed like a lifetime."

Back in New York, at Belmont Park, Zito apprenticed under three top-flight New York trainers -- Buddy Jacobson, Johnny Campo and Leroy Jolly.

"I was paying my dues, first as a groom, then as an assistant trainer, learning from some of the best in the business," Zito said. "You learn from their mistakes as well as their successes. Most of all, you learn it's a very humbling game."

In the early 1970s, Zito became his own boss and saddled his first winner, Palais, at Liberty Bell, in 1972.

He began to draw media attention in 1985 with Ride Sally, who won the Amerigo Lady, Distaff Handicap and Top Flight Handicap. But Zito's first major score came with Thirty Six Red, winner of the Gotham and Wood Memorial in 1990.

"We paid $92,000 for him at the Keeneland Fall sale," he said. "I remember writing in the sales catalog, 'Gamble, gamble, gamble,' but we took the chance and it paid off."

Thirty Six Red became his first entry in the Kentucky Derby, and Zito played the part of a tourist, visiting the Derby Museum, making the party rounds and rubbing elbows with the racing swells. He was brought quickly back to earth when Thirty Six Red finished ninth.

The next year, Zito was in the winner's circle with Strike the Gold, "a willing horse with a great personality."

Asked what went wrong in the Preakness, where Strike The Gold finished sixth behind winner Hansel, Zito walked to a fence post near Go For Gin's stall at Pimlico.

"See this post?" he said. "Before the '91 Preakness, I got a letter from a racing fan in Lynbrook, Long Island. He told me, 'You proved in the Derby you know what you're doing. Don't let anyone change your plans for Strike The Gold in the Preakness.' I pinned that letter to this post, as a reminder."

But come race day, co-owner Giles Brophy and jockey Chris Antley had different ideas.

"Instead of having Strike the Gold hang back and rally like he did in the Derby, they had him fighting to stay close to the pacesetters," Zito said. "They completely changed the game plan, and you saw what happened."

Brophy eventually was bought out by fellow New Yorkers William Condren and Joseph Cornacchia, who have given Zito a freer rein in running their stable of Belmont-based horses.

"I've had some Hall-of-Fame guys training horses for me, like Jimmy Croll, who trained Housebuster," said Condren, a private investor in real estate and equipment leasing.

"But Nick is in their league. What I like most about him, is that being a trainer is more than a job to him, it's a passion. He's in the stall, working with horses every day. He's not some prima donna more interested in socializing."

Earlier this week, strolling around the Preakness barn, Zito said he was picking up "good vibes."

"I used to think this race was a real killer, coming only two weeks after the Derby," he said. "I called Pimlico 'The House of Dracula,' with vultures hovering everywhere. But it looks like a friendlier place now."

Asked to compare Go For Gin with Strike the Gold, Zito smiled and said, "Strike the Gold was a handsome chestnut with a real presence about him, sort of like Robert Redford. But Go For Gin is a dark bay and more like a street fighter. You saw how he liked the mud at Churchill Downs. Kind of reminds me of Al Pacino."

That's Nick Zito, still the hip guy from the sidewalks of New York, light years removed from that lonely Greyhound stop in Virginia.

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