BELMONT, N.Y. -- Unless you were one of the few to place a bid on him, hardly anyone remembers that Da'Tara won the Belmont Stakes last year. All the focus was on Big Brown's bid for the Triple Crown, and when he completely flopped, Da'Tara's improbable wire-to-wire victory at 38-1 odds seemed like an afterthought.
Trainer Nick Zito doesn't mind, however. In fact, he kind of likes flying under the radar. He has certainly had success at the Belmont. In 20 chances, he has won twice, finished second six times and third three times. He has a chance to potentially do it again with two horses this year, Brave Victory and Miner's Escape, both listed at 15-1 odds. Like Da'Tara, both horses are owned by Robert V. LaPenta.
"I think they're both good horses, and they both have good chances," Zito said. "I think they're going to run well. They've run two good races in a row."
Zito's horses also have the advantage of not having competed in either of the first two legs of the Triple Crown, meaning they should be, along with Charitable Man, the freshest horses in the field.
"I think just leading up to the Triple Crown, you can take a lot out of a horse," Zito said. "So these two particular horses have that in their favor. They may not be as good as the Mine That Birds and the Charitable Mans or whomever else, but they didn't go through the rigors of a Triple Crown race. So who knows, maybe lightning will strike twice."
Zito did say he thought the race was Mine That Bird's to lose, and that if one of his horses didn't win, he wanted it to be either Mine That Bird or Summer Bird, both of whom are the sons of Birdstone. Zito trained Birdstone to a Belmont victory in 2004.
"Those two trainers, I just love where they come from and the way they handle themselves," Zito said of Chip Woolley and Tim Ice. "That's what our sport is about."
Woolley's first impressions
Although Woolley has been getting a lot of credit for discovering a diamond in the rough in Mine That Bird, he wasn't exactly sold on the horse when he took a trip up to Canada on behalf of friend Mark Allen to see whether he was worth the $400,000 asking price.
"His legs went left and right was the first thing I noticed and kind of turned me off, to be honest," Woolley said. "When I first went and looked at him, I thought, 'He's kind of a pretty colt.' But when they let him out and I looked at his legs, I kind of stepped back and eased away from him and called Mark and said, 'Man, this horse is kind of crooked. I don't know. That's a lot of money.' But I stayed and watched him train, and when you watch him train and get over the racetrack, it kind of changes the way you look at him. He just moves so, so well. We decided to take the gamble."
Legendary horse racing writer Joe Hirsch, who died in January, was honored Friday at a ceremony at Belmont Park to commemorate his many contributions to the sport. Hirsch was the executive columnist for Daily Racing Form from 1974 to 2003, when he retired. He was the founder of the National Turf Writers Association.
"To give Joe a Triple Crown to cover was like giving Picasso a brush, or Tiger Woods an 8-foot putt," Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.