In the days and weeks leading up to the Belmont Stakes, there was a trainer who filled reporters’ notebooks with outlandish quotes, a braggart who would make Muhammad Ali stand up and ask, “Did he really say that?”
He boasted about his horse, saying a victory Saturday was a “foregone conclusion,” that those who braved the steamy conditions at Belmont Park could see a Secretariat-like victory.
That trainer wasn’t Nick Zito.
It’s not that Zito doesn’t have the pedigree to brag. He’s a Hall of Fame trainer who has twice won the sport’s grandest race, the Kentucky Derby, who has a Preakness win under his belt and now can lay claim to two very memorable Belmont Stakes victories.
But Zito wasn’t brought up like that. Zito grew up in Ozone Park. His father, Thomas, was a chauffeur for former Mayor Robert Wagner, his mother, Carmela, would take him to Yankee Stadium when he was a boy.
Right about the time Zito first visited Yankee Stadium, he made his first trip to nearby Aqueduct Racetrack and he fell in love immediately. He started working there as a teen, as a hotwalker and groom for trainer Buddy Jacobson. While classmates at John Adams were trying to map out their future, Zito already had his planned out.
He worked for trainer Robert P. Lake and then was an assistant to Johnny Campo and LeRoy Jolley. Finally, in 1972, Zito became a trainer and earned his first win with Palais at the old Liberty Bell in December, 1972.
His parents’ quiet work ethic stayed with Zito long after they died, long after he won bigger and better races, like the Kentucky Derby with Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go for Gin in 1994, the Preakness Stakes with Louis Quatorze in 1996 and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile with War Pass in 2007 and the Breeders’ Cup Fillies with Storm Song in 1996.
But his most memorable wins came right here at home at the Belmont Stakes. With 120,139 fans hoping to see Smarty Jones win the Triple Crown, it was Zito’s longshot, 36-1 Birdstone, that came away with the victory.
And on Saturday, in front of a crowd of 94,476 who were anticipating a Big Brown rout, another Zito longshot, 38-1 Da’Tara, won it convincingly.
Even then, when mighty Big Brown was defeated by a horse that, in the Florida Derby lost to the Triple Crown contender by 23 1/2 lengths, Zito wasn’t gloating.
“You can’t take anything for granted,” Zito said. “You’ve got to thank your lucky stars, and we’re blessed, obviously. We’re blessed to have an owner like Robert LaPenta and blessed to have a jockey like Alan Garcia who rides for you once in awhile and I’m lucky to have people that work for me and believe in me.”
Zito has trained horses for George Steinbrenner and Rick Pitino, but it’s his partnership with fellow New Yorker Bob LaPenta, a proud Iona College grad, that resulted in one of the most memorable Belmont Stakes in recent memory.
“I buy the horses, and I buy the horses for a lot of people, too, but whatever it is, Bob is a lucky guy,” Zito said. “It’s just good karma.”
Zito could have taken the opportunity to rip into the media who all but ignored his horse leading up to the Belmont. He could have taken a shot at Rick Dutrow, who couldn’t shut up about Big Brown. Instead, Zito, took the high road, the classy route. Just like he always does.
“You’ve got to see and believe in what you do, and be thankful, and I am thankful,” Zito said. “There’s highs and lows, but what can I say? Another Triple Crown race, and this Belmont was very special today.”
Reach Sports Editor Dylan Butler by e-mail at dbutler@ti
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