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Looking for the Missing Jewel

Belmont is the only Triple Crown race New York-born trainer Zito hasn't won

June 02, 2004|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

ELMONT, N.Y. — Wooden signs adorn Barn 12 at Belmont Park, where Nick Zito trains his horses. Passersby are reminded that Zito won the Kentucky Derby in 1991 and 1994 with Strike The Gold and Go For Gin, and that he won the 1996 Preakness with Louis Quatorze.

There still is room on the walls, however, for the Triple Crown race that has eluded the New York-born Zito -- the Belmont Stakes.

The 56-year-old trainer, who was a Hall of Fame finalist this year on a ballot that went to the Belmont-based Shug McGaughey, has finished second five times in the Belmont and is running two horses in Saturday's 136th Belmont Stakes, but this is a bad year for Zito to be playing catch-up in his hometown race. The favorite, Smarty Jones, is one win away from a Triple Crown sweep and may go off as the shortest-priced favorite since Spectacular Bid was upset at 1-5 in 1979.

Zito will seem to be using a derringer against a blunderbuss when he saddles Birdstone and Royal Assault on Saturday.

Birdstone is a small horse -- even smaller than the average-sized Smarty Jones -- and hasn't won a race this year. He won the Champagne Stakes at Belmont last year, but more recently has been beaten twice by 26 lengths, including an eighth-place finish, more than 15 lengths behind Smarty Jones, in the Kentucky Derby.

Royal Assault didn't get to the races until January, and although he has strung together five respectable races, including a victory in an ungraded stake at Pimlico on Preakness day, the chestnut colt was fifth in the Wood Memorial the only time he mixed with the elite of the 3-year-old division.

Both Zito horses will be longshots.

"If my horses have a good day and Smarty Jones doesn't, maybe we can win," Zito said. "There's been a lot of time [five weeks] between races for Birdstone, and that's a schedule that he prefers. After all, he was eighth in the Derby, not 18th. He's got the pedigree [Kentucky Derby winner Grindstone was his sire, and Dear Birdie, a Storm Bird mare, was the dam] to run the Belmont distance [1 1/2 miles]. Royal Assault was an [allowance-level] horse who ran a creditable fifth in the Wood, then he came back to win that stake at Pimlico."

Starting in 1984, Zito has run 11 horses in nine Belmonts. Twice, as he will Saturday, he ran two horses. His best 3-year-old this year is The Cliff's Edge, who won the Blue Grass at Keeneland and finished fifth in the Derby, even though he lost his two front shoes during the race. The Cliff's Edge was a contender for the Preakness, but he couldn't overcome a bruised foot in Baltimore and was scratched the day before the race. Zito said Friday that he planned to run The Cliff's Edge in the Dwyer Stakes here before sending him on to Saratoga for the Travers at the end of summer.

Zito's run of second-place finishes in the Belmont began with Thirty Six Red in 1990. The others were Strike The Gold in 1991; Go For Gin, who never won another race after the Derby, in 1994; Star Standard in 1995; and A P Valentine in 2001. Zito hasn't had a Belmont starter the last two years. Strike The Gold, who finished sixth in the Preakness, still went off favored in the Belmont, Zito's only favorite to run in the New York race.

"Strikey should have won," Zito said, alluding to the colt's wide trip under Chris Antley. But Hansel, who had won the Preakness, beat Zito's horse by a head.

Thunder Gulch, the 1995 Derby winner, was favored in the Belmont after running third in the Preakness, but Zito was optimistic about the chances of Star Standard, who was ridden by Julie Krone. Two years before, with Colonial Affair, Krone became the only woman to win the Belmont or a Triple Crown race.

"Julie had had an injury," Zito said, "and she had lost a lot of strength in one of her elbows. It made a difference. Star Standard was a strong horse, and she had trouble controlling him in the Belmont."

If Star Standard was going to win, it was going to be gate to wire, which seldom happens in the Belmont. Thunder Gulch stalked him all the way, made the lead leaving the final turn and won by two lengths.

"Has there been frustration?" Zito said. "Yes, but it's still better to play the game. The fact that we've been able to keep playing the game on this level says something. But while playing the game is all right, I'd still like to win one of these one day."

*

Showers are forecast for today and Thursday, but it's supposed to be dry Friday and Saturday, which means there's a good chance for a fast track in the Belmont. Temperatures in the 70s are expected Saturday.

Master David, second in the Wood Memorial but far back in his last two starts, including a 12th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, may be entered when post positions are drawn today. He's trained by Bobby Frankel, winner of last year's Belmont with Empire Maker.

Three state police departments will escort Smarty Jones from his Philadelphia Park barn to Belmont Park this morning. It's only a 100-mile van ride, but because of the geography, the colt will start out in Pennsylvania and come through New Jersey before arriving in New York.

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