On backstretch, it's how you talk that counts

May 19, 1994|By Bill Tanton

Horse racing has a language of its own. It's part of the sport's charm.

To talk like a true race tracker, it's not enough just to know the terminology. You have to know how to speak ungrammatically, especially when it comes to tense.

Everything that has ever occurred at a race track is expressed in the present tense, even if it happened a half century ago.

For instance, the words ran and won -- perfectly good English verbs -- don't exist at the track. They're past tense.

To illustrate, take the colt Pensive, who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness a half century ago. Horsemen don't say he won those Triple Crown races in 1994. They say he win them.

If you really want to sound as if you belong, don't just say, 'He win.' Say, 'He win big.'

Pensive did not go on to win the Belmont Stakes. He ran second to Bounding Home, but no self-respecting race tracker would tense it that way.

He'd say: 'Pensive run second.'

That's perfectly acceptable grammar -- as long as you're at a race track.

After a while, it begins to sound better when you say it wrong. It fits. It belongs.

Once in a while a horseman comes up with one that takes malaprops to a new level, which is what Nick Zito did at Pimlico yesterday.

Zito trains Kentucky Derby winner Go For Gin, the early line 2-1 favorite in Saturday's 119th Preakness Stakes.

Zito is not a highly educated man. He didn't finish high school in Ozone Park in Queens, N.Y. He was overcome by horse fever at 12 and went to work walking hots at the track at 16.

But there's nothing dumb about this man. He's a tremendously likeable guy and he has a good head on his shoulders. His success proves that.

Zito has saddled two of the last four Derby winners. The other was Strike the Gold in 1991.

'Here's a trainer, Nick Zito," says Maryland trainer Leon Blusiewicz, who has not been caught using the past tense in some 30 years, "he run three hosses in the Kentucky Derby and he win twice. That tells you something."

Zito's other Derby horse was Thirty Six Red, who ran, er, run ninth in 1990.

Yesterday at the stakes barn we were talking about Go For Gin's owners, lawyer William Condren and Joe Cornacchia, publisher of games such as Trivial Pursuit.

They owned Strike the Gold along with B. Giles Brophy in a partnership that turned sour and saw Condren and Cornacchia buy out Brophy.

The press clippings on Strike the Gold's Derby victory referred to owner Brophy and his "partners." The others' names were left unmentioned.

"Did Mr. Condren and Mr. Cornacchia own only a small part of Strike the Gold?" I asked Zito.

"They owned two-thirds of him," he said.

"And Brophy, with one third, got all the credit?" I asked.

"That's why they had a disagreement," Nick said.

It was then that Zito uttered a quote that ranks as a classic, even at a race track.

"Even I can count," Nick said. "Two-thirds goes into one-third more."

Beautiful. Baseball and football people don't give you quotes like that.

Zito loves training for Condren and Cornacchia.

"They're the best," Zito said. "Forget me. I've got a job to do and I do it. These two are great for the industry. They do so many things that are good for the game. You couldn't want better owners."

Condren and Cornacchia bought Go For Gin for $150,000 at the Saratoga yearling sales in August, 1992. They bought him because Zito liked the way he moved.

Getting the colt to where he is now, Zito said, took the work of a team, one of whose members has been overlooked in the plaudits given the Derby winner.

"Paula Parson did a great job breaking this horse at the farm in Middleburg, Va.," Zito said. "When I got him as a 2-year-old in April of '93, he was perfect."

Late Saturday afternoon, the most important member of the team may be Chris McCarron, the jockey.

When Jerry Bailey, Go For Gin's regular rider, chose to ride Irgun in the Derby, Zito jumped at McCarron, who had won a Derby on Alysheba in 1987.

McCarron is as good as they come. No question. Yesterday Eddie McMullen, a former jockey who worked around the Maryland tracks for many years before retiring, said this about McCarron:

"I started riding in 1945 and Chris McCarron is the best I've ever seen. That includes Arcaro, Conn McCreary, Ted Atkinson, Shoemaker -- you name him."

The most important member of the team once the horses come out of the gate will be Go For Gin himself.

"This horse gives you everything he's got," said Zito.

Perhaps some day years from now someone will ask Zito how Go For Gin did in the Preakness, and Nick will be able to answer simply, 'He win."

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