Triple pace doubly hard for Breeders'

November 04, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Six months after winning the Kentucky Derby, Go For Gin is dead last on the morning line for tomorrow's Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.

"He just isn't running well at all," said track oddsmaker Mike Battaglia, who made the horse a 20-1 shot.

It borders on heresy here in Derbyland: a Derby winner, running at Churchill, disdained as little more than a nag. But Nick Zito, who trains Go For Gin, was not arguing as he stood outside his barn yesterday.

"The Triple Crown season was extremely hard on him," Zito said. "There's no question that we're still paying for it."

So is Tabasco Cat, the D. Wayne Lukas-trained colt who beat Go For Gin in the Preakness and Belmont. Since the end of the Triple Crown season, Tabasco Cat has won one of four races. Go For Gin is 0-for-3. Both are perched in the broad shadow of Holy Bull, who dropped out of the Triple Crown after finishing 12th in the Derby, then wound up easily surpassing them.

The funny thing is, Zito isn't even surprised by his horse's decline. His other Derby winner, Strike the Gold, didn't win for a year after running in all three Triple Crown races in 1991.

"It's a tough situation," Zito said. "You try to do the right thing for racing and make the Triple Crown better, but you know you're going to suffer on the other side [of the season]."

Until as recently as 20 years ago, the best 3-year-olds routinely progressed from the Triple Crown through the summer and fall seasons, peaking at Saratoga. But years of overgrowth in the equine population, which quintupled in a 40-year period, has resulted in a decline in quality. No more than a couple of horses run in all three Triple Crown races every year. And even the best can no longer do it without developing lasting scars.

"These horses just aren't as strong anymore [as those from years ago]," Zito said.

Should the decades-old Triple Crown arrangement be altered to enable horses to remain relevant from the spring through the Breeders' Cup? If so, how?

Lukas has called for a significant overhaul amounting to a revolution, shortening the distances of all three races and lengthening the time between them. That would certainly succeed in making the Triple Crown less taxing. Horses would win all three races more often, no doubt.

Zito thinks that is going too far. He blanches at the notion of cheapening history.

"I'm a traditionalist," he said. "The Triple Crown is one of the greatest things in sports, one of the hardest things to accomplish. You don't want to make it too easy. It wouldn't mean as much."

Zito does have one suggestion: Lengthen the time between the Derby and Preakness from two weeks to three. "Three races in six weeks, instead of five, would make things easier on the horses without significantly changing the format," Zito said.

But pushing the Preakness back a week would push it into Memorial Day weekend in many years. Not a good idea. And waiting still another week could push it into June.

These things get complicated.

In all probability, nothing will change. And that is fine. Even though fewer horses have the requisite class and stamina, succeeding in the Triple Crown and lasting into the summer and fall isn't impossible. Five years ago, Sunday Silence won the Derby and Preakness in the spring, the Super Derby in September and the Breeders' Cup Classic in November. In 1990, Unbridled won the Derby in the spring and the Breeders' Cup Classic in the fall.

Yesterday, Zito insisted that Go For Gin was capable of pulling off such a comeback tomorrow, even though he finished a miserable eighth, 15 lengths off the lead, in his last start, the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

"After that, we had him X-rayed and scoped, and everything was fine," Zito said. "Then [jockey] Jerry Bailey did us a favor and came out and worked him one morning, and Jerry said he ran like he did in the spring. So we're here. And we're glad we're here."

Especially since the weather forecast includes a healthy possibility of rain tomorrow. Go For Gin, who won the Derby in a downpour, is a first-rate mudder.

"I wonder how much it would cost," asked the horse's co-owner, William Condren, "to have 30 or 40 planes flying over the track seeding the clouds Saturday afternoon?"

Zito laughed. "The fact is," he said, "most of these horses aren't talented enough to run well for an entire career. So what do you do? You keep doing what you're doing and try to weather the rough spots. And you wake up every day and thank God that you won the Kentucky Derby. Because I wouldn't trade that for anything, no matter what happens afterward."

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