For Zito, Belmont is personal Trainer returns home, bids to fill Crown gap

June 06, 1996|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ELMONT, N.Y. -- Nick Zito beamed from behind the microphones in Baltimore. His horse, Louis Quatorze, had just won the Preakness, and someone asked him about a coming race dear to his New York heart: The Belmont Stakes.

Zito's face nearly caught fire with anticipation. "How fast can we get there?" he said.

Now, nearly three weeks later, Zito is here. He's back at his home base of Belmont Park, site of the only Triple Crown race he hasn't won.

Yesterday, in the cool of a New York morning, he leaned on the rail at this sprawling racetrack, watching one of his unruly, unraced 2-year-old fillies dance awkwardly over the sticky dirt.

But as soon as talk turned to the Belmont, Zito's eyes dropped off the filly, and his quiet, gravelly voice rose to address the topic of Saturday's 1 1/2 -mile marathon, the last leg of the Triple Crown.

"I'd love to win the Belmont, being from New York," Zito said. "I want to get it out of the way."

Three weeks ago, he got the Preakness out of the way, winning Maryland's premier race for the first time in six tries. He has won two Kentucky Derbies -- with Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go for Gin in 1994 -- but the premier race in his own hometown not only has eluded him, but also has taunted him. Four times since 1990, his Belmont horses have finished second.

He'll try again Saturday with a two-horse entry: The proven Louis Quatorze, wire-to-wire winner of the Preakness in stakes-record time, and the developing Saratoga Dandy, fast-closing winner of Pimlico's Sir Barton Stakes on Preakness day.

The Zito-trained pair will be one betting interest, meaning if you bet one, you get both. And it might be the lukewarm favorite in this race without an obvious standout.

As many as 16 3-year-old thoroughbreds are expected to enter the Belmont before the post-position draw late this morning. Prospective entrants include the Triple Crown veterans Skip Away, Cavonnier, Editor's Note and Prince of Thieves -- as well as newcomers My Flag, Natural Selection and Jamies First Punch.

Jamies First Punch defeated Unbridled's Song in Belmont's Peter Pan Stakes, and Natural Selection won the Illinois Derby. But the most intriguing new name is My Flag, a Shug McGaughey-trained filly whose regal breeding flashes neon-like: Belmont! Belmont! Belmont!

Her mother and father, Personal Ensign and Easy Goer, won 18 of 20 races at Belmont Park. Yet My Flag, winner of two Grade 1 stakes and more than $1 million, hauls a great burden.

She would be only the 20th filly to race against males in the Belmont, the Triple Crown's most demanding race. Only two fillies have won the race: Ruthless in 1867 (the inaugural Belmont) and Tanya in 1905.

My Flag not only has captured the early attention of gamblers, but also has raised some concern in Zito.

"I worry about her a lot," he said. "I think she'll definitely be one of the horses to beat."

But the 48-year-old Zito may be the trainer to beat -- if the gods of wagering choose to shower down justice in the 128th Belmont Stakes.

Zito grew up about seven miles from here in the Queens neighborhood that surrounds Aqueduct, Belmont's sister track. He speaks often about his loving parents. His father worked for the city as a chauffeur; his mother went to work in a bank after raising four sons.

In an interview published last year, he said: "I am proof that in America, if you choose to elevate yourself, you can do it. I came from a home with two hard-working parents, and they taught me that if you are willing to apply yourself to what you want, you can get it."

He wanted the racetrack, which he embraced at 12 after going with his father. At 16, he got a job walking horses after workouts, and then at 18 started working with local trainers.

In 1973, he ventured out on his own. Success came gradually, and at a cost -- a divorce. He gave his life over to the track.

"Nick is a grinder; he keeps going," the trainer McGaughey told the New York Times. "If he gets beat up, he keeps fighting back. There's a guy who started with nothing, worked his way up and now . . . has won two Derbies and a Preakness."

Zito still refers to himself as "a street kid" and the United States as "the land of opportunity." After especially satisfying victories, he often says: "Once again, the good Lord rocked me in his arms."

In the words of his good friend Steve Haskin, a writer for the Daily Racing Form: "Zito is every working stiff's best friend -- the kid from the street who made good with nothing but his own sweat and dedication."

And so Saturday, in another Belmont in front of his hometown crowd, the hometown boy will lead to this track's lovely, tree-studded paddock his one-two punch, Louis Quatorze and Saratoga Dandy.

"We had the angels with us Preakness day," Zito said yesterday, the cool morning giving way to the warmth of midday. "Let's hope they ride with us again Saturday."

Pub Date: 6/06/96

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