Belmont Park Report: House Horse

Published in the July 7 Blood-Horse
Albert the Avenger was on a mission. It was his racetrack, his town, and his crowd. What better opportunity to settle matters with Unshaded and Include, both of whom had snatched victory from his grasp in grade I events.

For trainer Nick Zito, the $500,000 Suburban Handicap (gr. II) had payback written all over it. A victory by Albert the Great over his two nemeses would be retribution for those gut-wrenching defeats in last year's Travers Stakes (gr. I) and this year's Pimlico Special (gr. I), both of which have hung like a shroud over Zito's head and caused many sleepless nights.

Zito said he had nightmares for three weeks after the Travers. The Pimlico Special defeat also was painful and frustrating, as Zito felt jockey Jorge Chavez should have busted the race wide open nearing the head of the stretch instead of giving Include the opportunity to pounce on him at the wire. What would make a victory in the Suburban even more special was knocking off both of his antagonists as the 123-pound highweight.

How brave or foolhardy was it for Carl Nafzger, trainer of Unshaded, and Bud Delp, trainer of Include, to tackle the Beast of Belmont at his home track, where he had won five of his six starts? One of those wins came in last fall's annihilation of the East's top older horses in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), in which he ran the fastest mile-and-a-quarter by a 3-year-old in the history of New York racing.

Considering that Include, who beat Albert the Great by a neck in the Pimlico Special while in receipt of seven pounds, was now getting only one pound, it was no surprise Delp, his not-so-happy trainer, wondered before the race, "I must be pretty stupid to run, right?"

Albert the Great provided Delp with his answer when he easily took command from the start and galloped his opposition into the ground, winning by 2 1/4 lengths in 2:00.39 for the 1 1/4 miles.

Now six for seven at Belmont, the site of this year's Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, Albert the Great has turned into the quintessential house horse. The son of Go for Gin has become so familiar to New Yorkers, it would seem more appropriate to just call him Al.

Nick and Al. Now, that sounds like a pair you don't want want to mess with on the streets of New York. After the race, Zito, looking a like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders, said "great job" to Albert the Great's exercise rider Patty Kotenko; his groom Ricardo Troncoso, whom Zito had taken in as a teenager and taught how to groom horses; and his assistant Nick Galati. He even tossed a "great job" over to owner Tracy Farmer, who stopped him dead in his tracks. "Sure, great job. I really had a lot to with it," Farmer said facetiously. "You're the guy who did a great job."

Six horses showed up for the Suburban, once one of the great jewels in American racing. Albert the Great was coming off an easy score in the Brooklyn Handicap (gr. II). Include had followed up his Pimlico Special victory with a four-length romp in the Massachusetts Handicap (gr. II) for his fifth straight win and ninth in his last 10 races. Unshaded, who was injured in the Travers, returned this year with an allowance win before running like a short horse in the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. II).

Lido Palace, the Chilean champion, was coming off a sharp second in the Hawthorne Gold Cup (gr. II) and was being equipped with blinkers by trainer Bobby Frankel. Zito admitted he was concerned about having to give a horse of unknown ability like Lido Palace nine pounds.

Rounding out the field were Traditionally, winner of the Oaklawn Handicap (gr. I) who ran horribly in the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I); and Perfect Cat, a game second to Albert the Great in the Brooklyn.
A brief, but torrential, downpour about 20 minutes before the race failed to change the condition of the track, still listed as fast. Albert the Great, as expected, went to the lead and set a comfortable pace while racing well off the rail. Although a half-mile in :46.73 for a 1 1/4-mile race might be quick for most horses, Albert the Great does it as if he's in a common gallop. With his smooth, effortless strides, he knocked off three-quarters in 1:10.56 for fun, and seemed to pay no attention to Lido Palace charging up on his inside. Traditionally, who surprisingly was pressing the pace early, dropped out of contention, as Include began his move. Unshaded dropped about eight lengths out of it in last, and always had too much to do, never making his presence felt.

Nearing the top of the stretch, Albert the Great remained about six or seven paths off the rail, and it looked as if a strong Lido Palace was going to make things difficult. But Albert quickly shot clear turning for home. Jerry Bailey on Include could have easily gone through the wide gap between Albert the Great and Lido Palace, but he didn't want to take any chances that Chavez would close up the hole, so he steered his colt to the outside, and for a brief moment it looked like it was going to be another battle to the wire. Albert the Great still had another gear, and without being touched with the whip, he drew clear once again with a final quarter in :25.34. Lido Palace hung tough on the inside and narrowly beat out Include for the place spot. It was a gap of seven lengths back to Perfect Cat in fourth.

With his victory, Albert the Great is now tied with Include with 24 points each in the "NTRA Champions" series. The winner will be decided in the Whitney Handicap (gr. I) on July 28.

But Nick and Al's vendetta isn't over yet. As he walked down from the box area, Zito said, "Well, we got Include and we got Unshaded. We got one more to go; the white-haired guy." He was referring to Bob Baffert, who defeated Al in the Donn Handicap (gr. I) earlier this year with Captain Steve.

But for now, it's time for Zito to finally take a deep breath following the stressful Triple Crown campaign with A P Valentine and the fall and winter campaign of Albert the Great. "Today, we had a shot to make amends after those tough defeats, and do it carrying top weight," Zito said. "I know it was unconventional to have him wide like that, but I just wanted to make sure he was in the clear.

"It's very special to have won the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) with Go for Gin and then have his son turn into one of the best horses in America. Do you know how lucky and blessed I am; how grateful I am? There's no question the man upstairs takes care of me."

Back at the test barn, Zito's wife, Kim, was relieved the Suburban was over with. "We can finally have a stress-free dinner tonight," she said.

Continued . . .