SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - One cool morning on the backstretch, trainer Nick Zito bundled up in a gray hooded sweatshirt bearing the embroidered logo of the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame.
"Did you just buy that?' someone asked.
"Of course." he said. "Do you think I would have bought it last year?'
When Zito makes his speech this morning at his induction into the Hall of Fame, all of his frustration with the selection process will be forgotten.
Two years ago, Zito took the extraordinary step of writing a letter to the Hall of Fame committee, questioning why his name never had appeared on the ballot after many people, in casual conversations, mentioned they had nominated Zito but never had gotten the chance to vote for him.
The letter was a typically blunt Zito move, one that could have torpedoed his chances. Instead, Zito's name appeared on the ballot for the first time last year. He lost out to Shug McGaughey. This year, the first time that the rules were changed to require a nominee's name to appear on at least 75 percent of the ballots in order to be elected, Zito was in.
Zito was the only nominee in any of the non-jumper categories - trainer, jockey, or contemporary male or female horse - to be elected this year. He will be inducted along with honorees selected by the Steeplechase Committee: Sidney Watters Jr., Thomas Walsh and the horse Lonesome Glory.
Zito watched last year's induction ceremony from an inauspicious seat in the balcony.
"I remember just about every one of them, and I just loved it." said Zito, who was elected in his eighth year of eligibility. "I just wanted to know how it would feel someday, like everybody else. Anybody that says they don't want to be in there, they"re just not human. It's a great, great honor."
Zito embellished his resume with his first Whitney Handicap, which Commentator won Saturday. Zito has won the Kentucky Derby twice, the Preakness, the Belmont, Kentucky Oaks and the Breeders" Cup Juvenile Fillies.
Zito, 57, was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and grew up in Ozone Park, not far from Aqueduct, and it was there that his late father Thomas introduced him to racing.
"He liked horses. As a kid, he wanted to work for [Hall of Fame trainer] Max Hirsch, but then he went into the Army and he had four boys, so he couldn't do that." Zito said.
But his son could. "As a teenager, everything was racing for me." Zito said. "Once I saw how it worked, there was no turning back."
Except for a boyhood fantasy of playing infield for the New York Yankees, Zito (who now trains for Yankees owner George Steinbrenner) thought of no career other than one that would involve racehorses.
One of his first jobs was as a groom and hotwalker for Buddy Jacobson, and he also worked for Robert Lake, Johnny Campo and LeRoy Jolley, learning every step of the way.