LOUISVILLE, Ky. — After winning the Kentucky Derby twice in the 1990s, running 11 horses in the pinnacle race and not missing a Derby from 1994 through 1999, trainer Nick Zito was marooned in New York, watching this year's running on television.
Zito made an appearance at Churchill Downs the week before the Derby, running Valiant Halory, a third-place finisher in the Derby Trial.
"That was torture, to the first degree," Zito said. "I mean, it was all right to run Valiant Halory in the Trial, but I shouldn't have been there. I should have let somebody else saddle him. It was too much of a reminder that I wouldn't be back in a week to run in the Derby."
Derby fever has been known to come and go with many horsemen, but Zito is afflicted forever.
After he won his first Derby, with Strike The Gold in 1991, he didn't start another horse in the race until Go For Gin won in 1994.
"Every three years, that's not a bad average," Zito said then. But, in his soul, he knew better.
He was back in 1995, and every year since until this one, and even though his best finish since Go For Gin has been a fourth with Halory Hunter in 1998, Zito's barn knows no priority other than the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.
This year, however, Zito's calendar is cattywampus. He's in Louisville for the first Saturday in November.
The main reason is Albert The Great, an early Derby prospect who wasn't good enough in May but now is one of the favorites for the Breeders' Cup Classic, which at $4-million-plus will be four times richer than any Derby. Zito has three other Breeders' Cup hopefuls--the same Valiant Halory in the Sprint, A P Valentine in the Juvenile and Out Of Sync in the Juvenile Fillies--on Saturday's eight-race, $13-million card.
Since 1991, Zito, 52, has been a regular at the various Breeders' Cup venues, his 16 starters producing four seconds and a lone win with Storm Song in the Juvenile Fillies at Woodbine in 1996.
This year, Zito especially needed a strong finish, because his opening act had the critics running for the exits. Besides being a no-show in the Derby, his best older horse, Stephen Got Even, did little running this year and finally was retired in September because of chronic foot ailments.
"After winning the Donn Handicap [last winter at Gulfstream Park], Stephen was the best horse in the country," Zito said. "Do you believe in the Beyers [speed ratings]? Stephen Got Even had a 120, which is better than anyone's had all year. And Albert The Great had a 119 in his last race."
The 119 index came in the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 14 at Belmont Park, where, after a second to Unshaded in the Travers and a third as Fusaichi Pegasus, the Breeders' Cup Classic favorite, won the Jerome Handicap, Albert The Great beat older horses, winning by six lengths.
The son of Go For Gin and Bright Feather, a Fappiano mare, was clocked in 1:59 1/5 for 1 1/4 miles, the same distance as the Classic. In 16 runnings, the only Classic winners to run under two minutes have been Cigar, Skip Away and Cat Thief, with Skip Away's 1:59, at Hollywood Park three years ago, setting the record.
Albert The Great, an $85,000 yearling purchase, races for Tracy Farmer, a Midway, Ky., businessman. Sore shins prevented Albert The Great from racing as a 2-year-old, but his five wins this year have required 12 starts, which represents a lot of racing for a Zito horse.
"It's a good thing this is his last race this year," Zito said. "We ran this horse a lot early in the year because it took him a long time to break his maiden. We were trying to get that first win under his belt."
Albert The Great--named after his breeder, Albert Clay--ran three times at Gulfstream and once at Keeneland without winning. Then Shane Sellers, the jockey who rode him in those races, suggested that Zito put blinkers on the colt.
Sellers wasn't available for the first race after that, and Richard Migliore rode Albert The Great to a 10-length win at Keeneland on April 22. Since, Albert The Great has had four wins, a second and a third in seven starts. But Zito removed the blinkers three races ago and the colt will run without them Saturday.
"I don't think the equipment [change] meant anything," Zito said. "It was immaturity getting him beat early on."
At the time of the Triple Crown races, Albert The Great was still working his way through race conditions as Zito made the Travers, at Saratoga in August, the early-season goal. The day before the Belmont Stakes in June, the horse was an easy winner of an allowance race in New York, his third consecutive win.
Stakes competition began a month later, with a three-length win in the Dwyer at Belmont. Migliore rode him that day, but Jorge Chavez, who won two Breeders' Cup races last year at Gulfstream and was voted the 1999 Eclipse Award for best jockey, has ridden the colt in his last three starts and will be back aboard Saturday.