Zito Limbers Up for Triple Crown Assault

By RICHARD ROSENBLATT
AP Racing Writer

Squinting into the morning sun, Nick Zito stood outside his barn mulling over his Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) chances.

The trainer was reminded that at this time last year he said four of his 3-year-old colts had a chance to make the Derby on the first Saturday in May -- and Bellamy Road wasn't even in the mix.

"I'll be happy to have just one, but I hope I have more," was the best Zito could do Thursday, two days before he sends out four of his Derby prospects -- two owned by New York Yankees boss George Steinbrenner -- in three races at Gulfstream Park: the $300,000 Fountain of Youth (gr. II), the $150,000 Swale (gr. II) and an allowance race.

Last year, Steinbrenner's Bellamy Road was one of a record five Derby runners for Zito, but the colt finished seventh as the favorite. Zito's other also-rans were Andromeda's Hero, High Fly, Noble Causeway and Sun King.

On Saturday, Zito will saddle Beacon Shine in the seven-furlong Swale and Hemingway's Key in the 1 1/8-mile Fountain of Youth for the Boss. His most promising prospect, though, is owner Robert LaPenta's Great Point, runner-up in the Holy Bull (gr. III) last month and a top threat to Fountain of Youth favorite First Samurai. Superfly, third in the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), makes his second start of the year in a 1 1/8-mile allowance race.

Still in Zito's barn are Derby hopefuls Doc Cheney, Hesanoldsalt and Little Cliff. Only Little Cliff's next start is set -- the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III) on March 18.

"We're going to try to see if they can get to run in the Kentucky Derby," the trainer said of his usual collection of talented young colts. "If they can't, you proceed elsewhere."

But it's worth paying close attention to Zito's entourage. High Fly won last year's Fountain of Youth and Noble Causeway won an allowance here the same day. Those wins came shortly after Sun King won a mile allowance race and Andromeda's Hero took the Sam F. Davis Stakes but before Bellamy Road's 15 3/4 -length win in an allowance race.

So who knows what could happen Saturday. Steinbrenner seemed optimistic Thursday.

"I think we'll do well this weekend down at Gulfstream," he said from Tampa, site of the Yankees' spring training camp. "We've got three horses in down there, all three are in stakes, so we should win one of them at least, maybe more."

On Sunday, Steinbrenner's filly Sweet Fervor is expected to run in the Forward Gal Stakes (gr. II). He also has two maidens entered Saturday.

Beacon Shine may be the most intriguing of Zito's lot. A son of Montbrook, the bay colt was sent to him after winning two of three starts -- including the Flash Stakes (gr. III) -- for Hall of Famer Bill Mott, a trainer also used by Steinbrenner's Kinsman Stable.

In his first race for Zito, Beacon Shine stumbled two jumps out of the gate and unseated rider Javier Castellano. However, the colt stayed with the rest of the pack all the way around the track and finished in front. A good sign, Zito says.

"A lot of horses when they do that will run out the gap, but he followed his prey and ran in a professional way," the two-time Derby winning trainer said. "I think he's a top horse. We just don't know how far he can run."

Jeremy Rose will be aboard, with Castellano riding Showing Up in the Swale.

"I was on him for all his races, and he's really a nice horse," Castellano said of Beacon Shine. "I'm sure he'll be ready to run."

Hemingway's Key, a son of Notebook, won both starts last year, then began his 3-year-old campaign with a jump to stakes company, finishing 11th of 12 in the Holy Bull on a rainy day. Rene Douglas will ride him.

"I don't know if he didn't like the slop, I don't know if it was the company," Zito said, "but like I told the Steinbrenner family, I'm going to find out. If he doesn't take a step forward, I'll regroup. He's still going to be a nice horse. If he's not a Derby horse, maybe he's a Belmont (gr. I) horse, or a Travers (gr. I) horse. That's the way I'm looking at it."

Then there's Great Point, a son of 2001 Horse of the Year Point Given  . The colt has two wins in five starts, and made an impressive late rush before finishing second to unbeaten Barbaro in the Holy Bull. Rose gets the mount.

"You have to be excited about Great Point," Zito said. "He ran a great race and you just hope he keeps going forward and comes around."

Which is what every trainer is hoping for over the next few weeks.

AP baseball writer Ron Blum in Tampa contributed to this story.

Most Popular Stories