Slightly more than 12 hours after saddling Da’ Tara to an upset victory in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), trainer Nick Zito was back at his barn at Belmont Park the morning of June 8 to oversee his stable.
Carrying a bag full of newspapers, most of which featured his colt’s win on the front pages, Zito arrived at 7 a.m., relaxed and ready to go to work.
Zito, whose first Belmont victory came in 2004 when he saddled Birdstone to foil Smarty Jones’ Triple Crown, downplayed the significance of Da’ Tara’s win but admitted it was special.
“A win is a win,” he said matter-of-factly, before adding: “Another Triple Crown race and this Belmont was very special. You can’t take anything for granted in this business. You’ve got to thank your lucky stars and you know, we’re blessed.”
A longshot overlooked by the crowd of 94,476 at Belmont Park, Da’ Tara was not a surprise to his trainer, who noted the colt had been on the improve, displaying an affinity for running on the lead.
“The horse had really gotten good in his last few races,” Zito said of Da’ Tara, who had one victory to his credit from seven starts previous to the Belmont. “He showed he certainly likes to run in front.”
After breaking his maiden in wire-to-wire fashion in his third career start, Da’ Tara was third in allowance company before finishing ninth, 23 ½ lengths behind winner Big Brown, in the Florida Derby (gr. I). “He wasn’t up to those horses in the Florida Derby,” Zito said.
Freshened, Da’ Tara next contested the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs, finishing fifth in the race won by Macho Again. Zito said his confidence in Da’ Tara was bolstered by comments from journeyman jockey Larry Melancon, who was a board in the Derby Trial.
“Larry Melancon told me, ‘Nick, this is a really good horse. Believe me, I was in a ton of trouble. When this horse goes longer, watch out.' "
Stretched out to 1 1/16 miles in the Barbaro Stakes, contested at Pimlico Race Course the same day Big Brown won the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), Da’ Tara set the pace before finishing second. Off that effort, Zito determined that Da’ Tara’s running style would be suitable to the Belmont.
Zito noticed Da’ Tara’s speed rating for his Barbaro were better than the one assigned Macho Again, the Preakness runner-up who competed in the Belmont.
“After looking at the charts of all the horses that were going to run in the Belmont, I determined that if Big Brown wants the lead, they are not going to put him on the lead," Zito said. "I said we will go to the lead and see what the deal is. It worked.”
Zito said he also believed Da’ Tara’s pedigree would be a plus for the Belmont’s 1½-mile distance. He is a son of two-time Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) winner Tiznow and produced from the Pirate’s Bounty mare Torchera.
“We knew he could get the distance,” Zito said. “Pedigree is a big thing.”
Zito said Da’ Tara will prepare for the Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. I) and Travers Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga. He said plans for Anak Nakal, who finished third in the Belmont, are undetermined.
Zito was one of the few trainers of Belmont starters on the backstretch the morning after the race. Trainer Rick Dutrow, who was at a loss to explain Big Brown’s defeat, did not come to the barn at Belmont. Dutrow is based at nearby Aqueduct, and Big Brown was the only horse he had stabled at Belmont as he prepped for the classic.
Macho Again, who ran fifth, will be given a break from competition, according to trainer Dallas Stewart. “He’s had two tough races,” the trainer said, referring to his Preakness effort.