Tomorrow's NAPA Auto Parts Breeders' Cup Sprint will be trainer Howard Zucker's first Breeders' Cup contest, but it certainly isn't the first time he has been closely involved with world-class athletes.
Zucker trains Crafty C.T., an intriguing member of the deep and evenly matched Sprint field. The 54-year-old has been based in Southern California for 20 years, but grew up on the streets of New York City at a time when New York was the unparalleled basketball capital of the universe. And Zucker, who stands well in excess of six feet, was the tallest guy on the playground courts -- that is, until a fellow named Lew Alcindor started coming around.
On the playgrounds of upper Manhattan Zucker was often matched against the man who would go on to become the all-time leading scorer in the history of the National Basketball Association under his adopted name of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. "Even back then, before he even got into high school, everyone knew how special he was and how great he could become," Zucker said from the rainy backside of Arlington Park Friday. "His career was being managed even back then, and the people didn't want him running too much on those gravel courts. So he didn't get back to play a lot of defense, and you could get a numbers advantage if you fast-breaked."
Zucker ended up at Stuyvesant High School in lower Manhattan, known for its outstanding academic results, while Alcindor attended Power Memorial in Brooklyn, where he became the most famous schoolboy player in the nation, leading to a superstar career at UCLA, where he won three national championships before moving to the NBA and winning titles with the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers. Zucker's basketball exploits ended when he started going up against players a half-foot taller than himself. He got into horse racing through a friend who galloped horses at Belmont Park, and interned with trainer J. Willard Thompson, who taught him horsemanship. Ironically, when Zucker moved to California, it was to condition horses for Jerry Buss, who also owns the Lakers. Zucker subsequently was able to catch up with Jabbar years after they first met on the playground.
Nor was Jabbar the only famous athlete who Zucker grew up around. Zucker was very good friends with Sugar Ray Robinson's son, and remembers the champion boxer taking the neighborhood kids to sporting events all over the city. "He would load all of us up in a car and take us to Knick games or Yankee games, and we'd sit in the best seats in the house," Zucker said. "And if there were too many kids, he'd have his bodyguard get another car and we'd go that way."
Although Crafty C.T. will be the first Breeders' Cup starter officially conditioned by Zucker, he looked after two winners prior to the inaugural Breeders' Cup at Hollywood Park in 1984. Eillo and Wild Again came out of his barn after shipping in.
Zucker is high on Crafty C.T., who was off slowly but running late for a second-place finish in his most recent test, the Ancient Title Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. I) at Santa Anita. Although he has won just two allowance races this year, he ran a strong third in the Met Mile (gr. I) after being fanned five-wide, and last year was a game second to Point Given in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) after having taken down the San Rafael (gr. II), his lone stakes win. Although Zucker feels the son of Crafty Prospector may be better suited for a mile, he couldn't find a race at that distance for him, and Zucker feels after three straight sprints, his horse is sharp enough to be a strong contender in the Sprint.
Leave it to Zucker to be around more athletic greatness.