Zito makes no excuses, and gladly takes 2nd place 119TH PREAKNESS

May 22, 1994|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Sun Staff Writer

Nick Zito scanned the cloudless sky at high noon, with the Goodyear blimp casting the only shadow.

"Beautiful, just beautiful," he said. "They say everything's for a reason. I can hear God saying, 'They're knocking my horse. Now we'll prove the Derby was no fluke.'

"This horse can run and win anywhere, any time. He won the Preview and Remsen stakes on fast tracks. He's the class of this field."

It was about five hours before Go For Gin would race in the Preakness, finishing second to Tabasco Cat. Already Zito and his stable hands were starting to get antsy after two weeks of preparation at Pimlico.

Only the horse seemed unperturbed. Go For Gin munched steadily on his bin of hay while alertly sizing up every passer-by.

"Don't let that fool you," Zito said. "He knows he's running today, and in a big race. We try to keep his routine the same, but you can't fool him."

It was a time for musing around Stall 40, the royal suite of the Preakness barn.

A plaque reminded visitors that Triple Crown winners Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed once had slept here.

"Pressure, more pressure," said groom Leroy Ross, whom Zito calls his main man. "When Brocco and Holy Bull pulled out, that made us the favorite here."

"Hey," Zito interjected, "before the Derby, not one of 25 racing writers polled by USA Today picked us to win. This time, nine had us on top, but only one guy -- Brian Milligan -- picked us in the Racing Form. Luck of the Irish."

An extra barrier placed near Go For Gin's stall kept most of the tourists away, while Zito pondered the possibilities.

"I'd like one day to be recognized as one of the best trainers," he said. "Winning two Derbies is a start. But I'd desperately like to go back to Belmont with two-thirds of the Triple Crown in the bag. The monkey would be off my back, and we could relax in New York.

"Winning the Triple Crown would mean everything, but just getting a crack at it would be great. I feel a responsibility to get this horse some recognition."

Jose Cuevas, labeled "exercise rider to the stars" after tuning up the likes of A.P. Indy, Sea Cadet and Tight Spot, was wearing his lucky white Panama hat and a nifty suit jacket, but still carrying a bucket.

"Got to have the bucket," said Cuevas, a native of the Dominican Republic. "Never know when a horse needs water.

"But this horse is ready. You could see he's really picked it up the last few days. He'll run the same race he had at Churchill."

While Go For Gin continued to munch, Zito said, "His appetite's been good, and he's got high energy. He's ready."

Zito also liked the idea of having Chris McCarron in the saddle.

"Chris knows this track as well as anybody," he said of the jockey, who guided Go For Gin to a wire-to-wire victory in the Derby. "And no one analyzes a race better than Chris. But if the horse wants his head, you've got to let him run."

There was a brief break for an interview with ESPN. On the way back to his stall, Zito passed a group of rival trainers, including D. Wayne Lukas and Charlie Whittingham, in animated discussion.

"No time now for schmoozing," he said. "I love all these guys, and we talk in the mornings. But today, they're like fighters trying to knock my head off."

All of the pre-race omens were seen as favorable.

"Down at the Derby, I borrowed a stopwatch from one of the track writers to clock Gin. Being slightly superstitious, I asked him if I could take it to the Preakness. But when I got here, I couldn't find it. It finally wound up in Leroy's dirty drawers. That's better than nothing."

Go For Gin's second-place finish was better than nothing. At 7 p.m., some 90 minutes after Go For Gin had lost a spirited stretch duel with Tabasco Cat, the mood around Stall 40 was somber.

McCarron was the first to arrive.

"He ran great," McCarron said. "He was running even easier today than he did in the Derby. I never felt pressure."

Inevitably, a man with a microphone asked McCarron about "the turning point."

"When that other horse got in front," he said. "For all intents and purposes, that was the race."

There would be no excuses from Zito, only praise for an extremely game effort.

"You've got to be thankful for a wonderful horse," Zito said. "He ran his guts out on a fast track. There was no bias in his favor. Everything was perfect, down to the game plan. I thought we were going home a winner.

"But sports is like life. You can't win them all. It's like [sportscaster] Jack Whitaker always said, 'You've got to be lucky and blessed to win a Triple Crown.' We haven't had one since Affirmed in 1978. Seven years from now, maybe I'll get another shot at it."

Zito and his crew were ready to head home to New York and the Belmont Stakes three weeks down the road.

"Everything's looking positive now," Zito said. "If he stays healthy, we'll be there. No complaints. Today, I couldn't say thanks to God and America, but I could say thanks to Maryland. Nice. Real nice."

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