Five Derby hopefuls make Zito's head spin and ache

But trainer knows rivals would gladly trade places

Horse Racing

April 01, 2005|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Nick Zito has a headache. And it's not your usual headache, Zito said; it's a migraine.

Although Zito, a trainer fixated on the Kentucky Derby, has five horses on the Derby trail, including two in the $1 million Florida Derby tomorrow at Gulfstream Park, he has a head full of worries.

He's worried about "strangles," the contagious bacterial disease that is disrupting training and equine travel up and down the East Coast. He's worried about the health of High Fly, his Florida Derby favorite, who spiked a fever over the weekend.

And he's worried in general about the spider web of things that can go wrong as he steers his quintet of Derby hopefuls toward the main event.

Despite the headache, Zito said, he's thankful for being in the position of having so much to worry about.

"We're happy to be in the game," Zito said. "But you're still five weeks away from the Kentucky Derby. Things change every day. You arrive in the morning, and things change, hopefully for the better but sometimes not for the better. You keep your fingers crossed. You knock wood. You thank God."

Zito has won the Kentucky Derby twice - with Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go for Gin in 1994. And last year he trained three leading Derby contenders, two that made it into the race - The Cliff's Edge, who finished fifth, and Birdstone, who finished eighth and later won the Belmont and Travers.

But Zito has never held a hand so strong. He could wind up training a quarter of the Derby field, which is limited to 20 horses. That would tie him with D. Wayne Lukas for the most Derby starters in one race. Lukas started five in 1996 - and won with Grindstone.

Zito won't even start discussing that possibility. He said the lead-up to the Kentucky Derby is like the NCAA basketball tournament. His horses must make it through another round to reach the Final Four.

"After we get through that last round, yeah, I'll say we've got a pretty good shot," Zito said. "We just have to see how it plays out."

Here's a look at Zito's five prospects:

High Fly is the 8-5 morning-line favorite for the Florida Derby. He has won four of five races, including the Fountain of Youth Stakes four weeks ago at Gulfstream. High Fly was transferred to Zito after his only loss, a third-place finish Feb. 5 in the Holy Bull Stakes. His jockey is Jerry Bailey.

Noble Causeway is the 3-1 second choice in the Florida Derby. He won his last two races impressively, but this is his first stakes try. Edgar Prado rides him.

Sun King is No. 1 in the major Kentucky Derby polls. He toyed with the opposition while winning the Tampa Bay Derby for his second straight victory. He's scheduled to make his final start before the Derby in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. His regular rider is Prado.

Bellamy Road has won three of four starts. In his 3-year-old debut, he romped by 15 3/4 lengths in an allowance race at Gulfstream. Maryland trainer Michael Dickinson conditioned Bellamy Road last year, but George Steinbrenner, the colt's owner, sent him to Zito for his Derby preparation.

Bellamy Road is scheduled to run in the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct, assuming the New York track lifts its restriction on horses shipping in from Florida; Zito has that to worry about, too. Javier Castellano rides Bellamy Road.

Andromeda's Hero finished fifth last weekend in the Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park. Zito said he didn't handle the muddy track and didn't have the best of trips. Rafael Bejarano rode him. Zito said he'll give the colt another chance in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park or the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland.

Like storm clouds hurling lightning bolts, looming above everything for Zito and many trainers is the worry about strangles. That's the popular name of the upper-respiratory disease - rarely fatal - discovered recently in several horses at the Palm Meadows training center, 40 miles north of Gulfstream, and a training center in Louisville, Ky.

After five horses tested positive for the disease at Palm Meadows, where Zito was based, he moved his horses to Keeneland and Gulfstream. Because strangles is contagious, Zito can't take his horses onto the track at Gulfstream for morning training until all the other horses have returned to their barns. That has Zito on edge.

Plus, High Fly came down with a slight fever several days ago. Fever is one of the symptoms of strangles, but High Fly's temperature returned to normal after only one day, Zito said. He said the heat and humidity might have gotten to the colt.

After all that, a South Florida newspaper ran a photo of High Fly Wednesday with a caption that said High Fly had tested positive for strangles. That further upset Zito.

Yesterday, the newspaper ran a correction. "We regret the error," the three-sentence correction concluded. It made no mention of Zito's headache.

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