Nick Zito made it look so easy. Much, much too easy, history would reveal.
The silver-haired, 66-year-old New York trainer with the captivating enthusiasm first surfaced at the Kentucky Derby in 1990 with Thirty Six Red. The colt finished ninth.
But Zito returned with Strike the Gold in 1991. He won and infected all of thoroughbred racing with his zeal. He was back with Go For Gin in ’94. He won again and bubbled over again.
The Run for the Roses has always been the world’s most fabled thoroughbred race, the goal for any owner, trainer or jockey. For Zito, it became more: A revered Holy Grail, his identity.
That’s why the absence of a Zito trainee in the past two Kentucky Derbys seems a bit surreal. He finished second with Florida Derby winner Ice Box as recently as 2011 and, remarkably, saddled five starters in 2005. (“Don’t remind me,” he quipped of that five-fold disappointment.) But today, two decades separate him from his greatest glory.
Zito will sit out another Churchill Downs classic on May 3 unless a rapidly developing sprinter named Spot catches lightning in a bottle Saturday in the 63rd running of Gulfstream Park’s $1 million Besilu Stables Florida Derby.
The gelded son of Pulpit, off a solid 2 1/2-length victory in the seven-furlong Grade 2 Swale Stakes in his first start for Zito, will be up against current top-rated Kentucky Derby contender Cairo Prince plus two others among the top 10 in all polls.
A field of eight drew into the mile-and-one-eighth Gulfstream crown jewel Wednesday. It’s top-loaded. Cairo Prince was established as a 9-5 favorite over Fountain of Youth one-two finishers Wildcat Red and General a Rod.
Zito, who trained three Florida Derby champions from 2005 to 2011, conceded the formidable challenge confronting Spot during a phone conversation from his Palm Meadows stables 45 minutes north of Gulfstream. He won only once in four starts as a 2-year-old and finished a well-beaten fifth in Gulfstream’s Hutcheson on Feb. 14.
But 91-year-old Texan Joseph H. Moss purchased Spot and put him in Zito’s care before the Swale, to immediate gratification. Now it’s Zito’s hope that Spot is “getting good at the right time.
“There’s just one question,” he said. That’s whether Spot, who has not raced longer than a mile, can sustain his speed and form for a mile and one-eighth and around two turns. “If he can get the distance,” Zito said, “I think he fits with these horses.”
Zito, an enthusiast for all sports, said he has long equated getting a 3-year-old to the Kentucky Derby to making the playoffs. Until the past two years, his absence on the Churchill Downs backside on the run up to the Derby was a rarity.
“I got to the playoffs just about every year and there was some [gratification] in that,” he said. “But you’ve got to win the Super Bowl. You’ve got to win the Final Four.”
Zito obviously has nothing left to prove. His Hall of Fame plaque went up in 2005. But he acknowledges the landscape has changed.
From 1991 through 2002, a high-profile trio of training royalty — D. Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert and Zito — saddled eight of the 12 Kentucky Derby champions.
“Here’s a trivia question,” Zito said. “When did Baffert last win the Derby? If you [bet] somebody that Bob’s last Derby winner was 12 years ago, you could take every dime they had in their pocket. And he’s always in it.”
Astonishingly, the last 15 Kentucky Derbys, starting with Charismatic’s 1999 conquest for Lukas, have been prepared by 15 different trainers.
“Now it’s tougher, more complicated,” Zito explained. “What happens in the sport today, there are more prep races, there is even more emphasis on the Kentucky Derby, and there are more people doing this.’’
Zito chuckled. “The wonderful thing about this business, you have that Mine That Bird story. A couple guys put a horse on a van, they come from wherever and they win the Kentucky Derby.”
“Wherever” was New Mexico, the trainer was a former rodeo bareback rider named Bennie Woolley Jr. and Mine That Bird left the gate as a 50-1 long shot and won by the largest margin, 6 ¾ lengths, since Assault in 1946.
Second place went to Pinoneer of the Nile, one of Baffert’s parade of “almost’’ winners.
And Mine That Bird was sired by Birdstone, who won the 2004 Belmont Stakes. Birdstone’s trainer? Nick Zito. He also saddled 1996 Preakness winner Louis Quatorze and 2008 Belmont winner Da’ Tara.
In short, he has enjoyed a spectacular career. But another trip to the Kentucky Derby, and a possible third victory after a 20-year dry spell, still inhabits his dreams.
Run, Spot, run.