A sprinter who was one of several 3-year-olds trying to masquerade as routers in the 1986 Kentucky Derby, Zabaleta, has found life after Churchill Downs, becoming an effective runner at distances that don't tax his limited staying power.
Zabaleta's career almost ended after last year's Derby, but, fortunately, all he suffered was a chipped bone in an ankle, which was corrected by arthroscopic surgery.
Out of training for five months, Zabaleta was returned to trainer John Gosden last October. He has been in the money in six races since then, and on Monday he scored his most significant win, by one-length over Nostalgia's Star in the $217,000 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap at Hollywood Park.
Gosden not only knows at what distances to run Zabaleta, he knows where. There was another important mile race Monday, the Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park. A plane had been ordered, but the Metropolitan was 3,000 miles away, and when Bedside Promise wasn't entered in the LeRoy, Gosden decided to stay at home.
Bedside Promise beat Zabaleta by two lengths in the Triple Bend Handicap at Hollywood on May 2. "He beat us fair and square," Gosden said. "And if he had run today, we would have been in New York. But with him out, I knew we had a good chance."
Zabaleta, ridden by Laffit Pincay, was slightly favored over Judge Angelucci and paid $6.60, $3.60 and $3. Nostalgia's Star paid $5.60 and $3.60, finishing two lengths ahead of Sabona, another Gosden runner who had a neck on Judge Angelucci and returned $3.20.
Running the mile in 1:34 4/5, Zabaleta earned $127,000 for his owner, Michael Riordan of Pacific Palisades. Another Riordan horse, Bates Motel, was also trained by Gosden and won the Eclipse Award for best handicap horse in 1983.
Zabaleta, a 4-year-old son of a champion sprinter, Shecky Greene, and Winver, is named after Martin Zabaleta, the first Spaniard to climb Mt. Everest and now a San Francisco resident.
For Hollywood Park this season, there appears to be too many mountains to climb. The track is financially troubled and Monday's crowd of 33,023, while the highest of the holiday weekend, was still the smallest ever for a Memorial Day. A giveaway of five cars and trucks each day had minimal effect.
Zabaleta was trucking all the way in the LeRoy, battling first Launch a Pegasus and then Judge Angelucci for the early lead, then shaking off Judge Angelucci through the stretch and comfortably withstanding the rally of Nostalgia's Star to the wire.
"In a one-turn mile, or at six and seven (furlongs), this is a good horse," Gosden said.
Zabaleta has a record of three wins, two seconds and a third in six starts since his surgery.
"The horse relaxed beautifully for me," said Pincay, who is the meet's leading rider and won three of the four stakes over the weekend. "I was a little worried about Judge Angelucci, but my horse finished well. I knew I had plenty of horse down the stretch, but I didn't know how much Shoe (Bill Shoemaker) had left."
Gosden's long-range plan is to prepare Zabaleta for the Breeders' Cup at Hollywood Park on Nov. 21.
Because the sire but not the horse was nominated, it will cost $120,000 to supplement him. In the $1-million Breeders' Cup Sprint, at six furlongs, it will be worth the risk. There are no more Derby-sized races in the cards for Zabaleta.
Horse Racing Notes
Earlie Fires, riding at Arlington Park Monday, became the first jockey since Laffit Pincay to ride seven winners in a day. Fires won with seven of eight mounts, losing by a neck in the only race he didn't win. Pincay also went 7 for 8 at Santa Anita on March 14, becoming the first jockey to ever win seven at the Arcadia track. . . . John Gosden reported that Devil's Bride, who finished 10th in the 1 1/16-mile Acorn Stakes Saturday at Belmont Park, came out of the race in good condition. "She's just like Zabaleta," Gosden said. "A mile seems to be her best distance.". . . . Trainer Neil Drysdale reported that Blanco, second to Lost Code in the Illinois Derby at Sportsman's Park, is headed back to Hollywood Park, with plans indefinite. . . . Snow Chief, preparing for the Californian at Hollywood on June 7, worked 1 1/8 miles in a slow 1:52 4/5 Monday. . . . On Sunday, Masterful Advocate worked a half-mile in :50 4/5, his first recorded appearance since the virus that slowed him down following a 12th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. . . . Gary Stevens, aboard the 9-5 favorite, Tamtulia, in Monday's seventh race, was dumped leaving the starting gate.