"Come on six! Stay up three! Get out of there 12! Where's the four? Who's that?"
These may sound like the common shouts of an overzealous, exotics-playing railbird, but on Saturday, it just might be something you hear from as esteemed a place as the Churchill Downs box of New York-born trainer Nick Zito.
The man --whose enthusiasm led him to exclaim "I love you God, I love you America, I love you everybody" on national television after one of his two Kentucky Derby (gr. I) wins -- has plenty of love to go around these days. He is set to send five horses to post in this year's 131st running, making for an enviable embarrassment of riches among colleagues, and an interesting series of ethical questions for first-year law students.
What virtually writes the story line for the media-credentialed poses a huge challenge for the trainer. With Andromeda's Hero, High Fly
, Noble Causeway
, Sun King--and likely post time favorite Bellamy Road
--Zito will saddle up a full quarter of a potential 20-horse field, for as many different owners. Only D. Wayne Lukas, in 1996, accomplished a similar feat. In that year, his Grindstone
finished a winner and his Prince of Thieves finished third. Editor's Note (sixth), Victory Speech (10th), and Honour and Glory
(18th) were further up the track.
Lukas will start Bob and Beverly Lewis' Going Wild in 2005 and was scheduled to send out their Consolidator until a fractured sesmoid in a Monday morning workout sent the chestnut colt into early retirement.
"The Lewises and I have been very blessed in this race so you're not going hear us do any complaining about losing Consolidator," said Lukas. "But having more horses here makes you feel better, Hell, I wish I had three. People always ask me if it gives you any more pressure, but I always tell them the stress comes from watching the other guy have three."
Lukas has twice started three horses in the Derby. In 2000, he was shut out when Exchange Rate
(12th), High Yield
(15th), and Commendable
(17th) failed to fire. In 1995, though, he found major success when Thunder Gulch
powered home for the win, and Timber Country got up for third. Filly Serena's Song finished 16th.
"That year I actually thought Timber Country had a better chance to win," said the four-time Derby winner. Lukas has saddled a Derby record 41 runners spanning from 1981-2003. He was on the board with 10, and unplaced in 31 of those. His closest competitor in that category is fellow four-time winner H. J. "Dick" Thompson with 24.
As for trainers with entrants in 2005, Zito has started 14 (two winners, six others on the board); Bob Baffert, who trains Sort It Out, has sent out 13 students since 1996-2003 (three winners and three others on the board). Baffert sent out three runners in 1999 and fared best that year with Prime Timber who ran fourth.
Bobby Frankel (High Limit) has hit the board with three of his seven career starters, most recently second and third with Empire Maker
and Peace Rules
, respectively, in 2003, and 12th last year with Master David.
Todd Pletcher, who will send Bandini, Flower Alley, and Coin Silver, saddled four entrants in the 2000 Derby and understands owner's expectations as well as anyone. His best that year, Impeachment
, finished third, and More Than Ready
missed fourth. Trippi
(11th), and Graeme Hall
(19th) also ran.
"I'll saddle them all personally, but I don't like to sit too close to an owner on any race day, let alone the Kentucky Derby," said Pletcher.
Zito, who will personally saddle all five horses and then sit "all alone," is constantly questioned about dueling loyalty and owner juggling.
"It's a situation where the owners understand that it happens," said Zito of his loaded 3-year-old barn. "I always say that life is a game of people. Fortunately, I am working for some great people and so far no egos have gotten in the way. It's really worked out well. They all realize that it's hard just getting to the Derby and everything else after that is just a plus."
As for the pressure, Zito echoed Lukas' sentiments. "Right now this is good pressure. I always tell the story about Seattle Slew's trainer Billy Turner, who said 'the pressure is on you worse when you don't have Seattle Slew.' And it will never happen again, especially with five different entities.
"And I told my wife Kim that this will be the most memorable Derby we've ever had. It's been 15 years since I brought my first horse (Thirty Six Red-9th) and now we've got five and there are even horses here--Greeley's Galaxy, by Mr. Greeley, and Don't Get Mad, by Stephen Got Even
--whose fathers I trained," said Zito in his daily morning briefing to an overflow crowd assembled outside a makeshift barrier of PVC plastic.
"And I can guarantee you there won't be a fence up next year."
Zito is also philosophical about the likelihood of failure, with at least a few of his employers in the best of scenarios.
"Of course if you're a competitor you want to win, but I'd have to be a joke to feel anything but blessed, humbled and satisfied. If I'm a human being I have to ask, 'do I want everything in life?'"