Trainer Nick Zito notched another crowning achievement at Gulfstream Park on Saturday.
Zito, who built his Hall of Fame career on success in the Triple Crown, ruled the day in Saturday’s $1 million Claiming Crown by saddling Nevada Kid for a victory in the $200,000 Jewel, the last and richest of eight races run in honor of Thoroughbred racing’s most enduring competitors, the claiming horse.
Zito has been a considerably more frequent participant in the Triple Crown, having saddled two Kentucky Derby winners (Strike the Gold and Go for Gin), a Preakness winner (Louis Quatorze) and two Belmont winners (Birdstone and Da’Tara).
Taking advantage of a rare opportunity in the Claiming Crown, he instructed jockey Luis Saez to send Nevada Kid to the lead from the rail post position in hopes of earning a front-running score in the 1 1/8-mile feature for horses that had started for a claiming price of $35,000 or less at least once.
The strategy worked out perfectly.
Although stalked closely by Dominant Jeannes along the backstretch and far turf, the 4-year-old son of Silver Train was able to set comfortable fractions of :24.44, :48.33 and 1:12.43 for six furlongs.
Turning for home, Nevada Kid drifted off the rail while turning back the challenges of both Dominant Jeannes and 9-5 favorite Bernie the Maestro and drew away to win by 2 1/4 lengths as the 5-1 fourth betting choice.
“He likes to run that way. We talked about it. The fence looks pretty good right now. I love it when the drift because the change leads and get into that second gear. They catch their breath. [Saez] did a great job doing that. I love it when they do that,” Zito said. “[Eddie] Belmonte used to do that. I’m dating myself. I used to watch Belmonte ride like that. He [Saez] actually reminds me of Belmonte.”
Nevada Kid ran the 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.41 to earn $110,000 for the Hurricane Boys and Richard Pell. Dominant Jeannes, who was ridden by Paco Lopez, held second by a nose over late-charging Flatter This and jockey Eduardo Nunez.
“I was thrilled to death. My horse ran great, just terrific. I’m really happy. We just couldn’t get to the winner,” said Dominant Jeannes’ trainer Jason Servis.
“My horse hadn’t run in a while, and for whatever reason I couldn’t get a race in the middle. I wanted to make this his third race off the layoff but I couldn’t get it done. But we’re thrilled to death. It was a big race. We’re real happy.”
Nevada Kid became eligible for the Jewel at Gulfstream Park on Dec. 27, 2012, when he posted a front-running 4 3/4-length victory while carrying a $30,000 claiming tag.
Zito started his first horse in the Claiming Crown at Gulfstream in last year Jewel, saddling Tuvia’s Force for a sixth-place finish.
He started two horses in the Jewel Saturday: Nevada Kid and Sinorice, who tracked the pace in fourth before fading to eighth under Jose Lezcano.
• Florida Southern men 79, Nova 73: Nova (2-6, 0-1 SSC) nearly erased a 20-point deficit but fell short in its Sunshine State Conference opener at the NSU Arena. NSU was led by Stian Berg with 22 points on 7 for 13 shooting and brought down five rebounds.
• Tampa women 69, Barry 53: The Buccaneers (3-3) lost their Sunshine State Conference opener at the Health & Sports Center.