HORSE RACING / THE PREAKNESS : Despite Success, Zito Is Still a Stable Guy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Winning the Kentucky Derby with Strike The Gold didn't mean instant fame for trainer Nick Zito. Several hours after the Derby, one of the owners of Strike The Gold threw a party at a Louisville hotel, but Zito, excusing himself, went to a downtown restaurant for dinner with his wife, Jan, and some of the stable crew.

There was no prime table reserved for the Zito party. They waited two hours before being seated.

Two nights later, Zito was in the same restaurant with some friends. His picture had been plastered all over the local papers, and now he was a celebrity, with a choice table. The fact that there were about 75,000 fewer people in town might also have had something to do with it. At a table nearby was a friend of a friend of Zito's, a Louisville man celebrating his wife's birthday. The man, who had never met Zito, asked him if he would come over to the table, on signal, and sing "Happy Birthday" to his wife. This was pure Queens, the New York borough where Zito grew up. Zito not only arrived at the table with the song, on cue, but he also brought the rest of his tablemates with him, for a chorus.

Zito singing anything was a feat in itself this night, because he could hardly talk.

"Been giving too many interviews?" he was asked.

"No," he said. "I had a two-hour meeting yesterday with my owners."

Call Nicholas Philip Zito, 43, the reluctant celebrity. He would be the last guy to flash his Derby winner's-circle picture, using it to get a good table. Zito, who this week is preparing Strike The Gold at Pimlico for Saturday's Preakness, is the same guy he was a year ago, when he brought Thirty Six Red to the Derby and finished ninth.

The little things in life continue to be important to Zito. Winning the Derby didn't seem to mean as much to him as just getting his son Alex, 8, to watch the race on television. Three weeks before the Derby, Strike The Gold had won the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, and Zito called home to ask Alex what he thought of the race.

"Gee, Dad," Alex hemmed and hawed. "Gee, Dad, I was watching the Mets."

Derby week is hectic enough, hundreds of turf reporters pestering a trainer for interviews, television crews practically living in your tack room, but three days before the race, Nick Zito went over to Rutherford Elementary School in Louisville to speak to the second-grade class.

One of the kids asked him what Strike The Gold ate.

"A lot of hay, some oats, and he likes brown sugar." Zito said.

Asked if the 3-year-old colt liked carrots, Zito said: "He did like them, but they don't like him."

"Has he ever won a big game?" was another question.

"He won a big game the other day," Zito said. "A race called the Blue Grass Stakes. That's like the little Kentucky Derby."

"Does he bite?"

"He likes to bite a lot. But he doesn't mean anything. He's playful. He's playing all the time. He's a lovely horse. A wonderful horse. I've got a good feeling with Strike The Gold."

Zito still has that feeling, even though he is reminded here daily that horses with a late running style seldom win the Preakness, which is 110 yards shorter than the Derby; that this will be the third tough race in five weeks; that Strike The Gold might have trouble negotiating Pimlico's tight turns, and that the Pimlico track, based on the way Farma Way won the Pimlico Special in record time last Saturday, could be speed-favoring and therefore anti-Strike The Gold.

"Anybody that discredits this horse is asking for trouble," Zito said. "I still have all the faith in the world in this horse. He doesn't run any bad races, and I think he'll run good again Saturday. But I'm not making any more predictions. I did that in the Blue Grass (saying that he would beat favored Fly So Free), and got away with it."

Rather than make predictions, Zito will stick with the superstitions that have carried him and Strike The Gold to this second race in the Triple Crown series. The other day, when Strike The Gold zipped six furlongs in 1:12 3/5 at Pimlico, Zito timed him with his talisman, a gold-plated stopwatch borrowed from another trainer, David Donk, at Keeneland.

Before the Blue Grass, Strike The Gold and Thirty Six Red worked extremely fast, and Zito used Donk's watch to time them. Thirty Six Red won a small stake at Churchill Downs on the same day Strike The Gold won the Derby.

Donk is letting Zito keep the watch through the Triple Crown and in the meantime Zito has bought Donk a $100 watch as a replacement.

"That's a pretty good deal, isn't it?" Zito said at Pimlico. "I get to use the lucky watch, Donk will get his watch back after the Belmont and he gets to keep the $100 watch besides. That's a pretty good deal."

Nick Zito answers his own questions a lot. Pure Queens, this hyper trainer of Strike The Gold.

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