By Francis Labelle Jr.
Zito has been a key player in the Belmont Stakes for 25 years
It was love at first flight.
Morning Bob, supplemented to the 1984 Belmont Stakes, ran third to Swale, but affirmed that trainer Nick Zito’s confidence was not misplaced.
Six years later, Thirty Six Red came along, earned a spot in the 1990 Belmont Stakes, went right to the lead and hung on strong, until Go and Go came along to spoil the party.
With his first two Belmont Stakes starters, Zito had come close and his love for the race was quickly tuning to obsession. Meanwhile, he learned that a ready horse always has a chance in a big race.
Morning Bob and Thirty Six Red both let Zito know what it was like to be competitive in a Classic race. Zito would win two Kentucky Derbys with Strike the Gold (1991) and Go for Gin (1994) and a Preakness with Louis Quatorze (1996) before his first Belmont Stakes in 2004 with Birdstone – his 12th starter.
In all, Zito has saddled 22 Belmont Stakes runners, with two wins, six seconds and three thirds and earnings of more than $2.6 million. That the victories came so hard is what makes them so precious.
“Obviously, there is so much history to the Belmont – and I’m old enough now to be an historian,” said the 61-year-old Hall of Famer. “I look at the Belmont, and I think of the great old horses that won this race. I see Art and Letters, who was in the same barn where my horses are now. Of course, I think of the great horses that won the Triple Crown. I remember the terrific job that Laz Barrera did in training Bold Forbes for the Belmont, and, of course, Woody (Stephens) who not only won five straight Belmonts, but won it with Conquistador Cielo just five days after winning the Met Mile.
“The Belmont is a Classic, no doubt about it. That was why I kept trying and why I keep running in it. And being a New Yorker, I guess it means even more to me. If it ever comes down to where they want to change the Belmont Stakes or the Triple Crown, I’ll be the one happy to debate it.”
“I got a very nice compliment the other day from a man who said I have to be one of the best trainers around, because I don’t have any grass horses, I don’t have any PolyTrack horses and the only New York-bred I have is Commentator,” Zito said. “I took that to mean that he understands that we love running in the big, distance races on dirt -- the way racing was years ago – and we are fortunate to have the owners and the horses that allow us to run in these kind of races.
In 2008, before the Belmont Stakes, Zito made his case of why he was running two longshots against overwhelming favorite Big Brown, who was going for the Triple Crown. As it turned out, Da’ Tara won gate to wire and Anak Nakal dead-heated for third. Zito always tries to have his horses fresh and fit for the Belmont Stakes.
“This is a mile and a half race, and with fresh horses that have been doing well, you always have a chance, especially at a mile and a half. That’s why I love this race.”