KENTUCKY DERBY : Go For Gin's Victory Wasn't Merely a Sloppy Fluke, Trainer Says

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Winning the Kentucky Derby with Go For Gin on Saturday made Mother's Day even more special for trainer Nick Zito.

"My mother watched the race on television in New York," Zito said at his Churchill Downs barn early Sunday. "She's 83. I talked to her on the phone after the race, and I could tell from her voice that she was more excited than last time."

Zito, 46, won the Derby with Strike The Gold in 1991 and is the 15th trainer with multiple winners. Ben Jones, training for once-dominant Calumet Farm, holds the Derby record with six victories from 1938 through 1952.

"Every three years," Zito said. "That's a good spacing. If I could keep that up, I might break the record."

Next for Go For Gin is the Preakness, the middle race in the Triple Crown, at Pimlico on May 21. At least five Derby horses besides Zito's colt are probables for the Preakness, two are possible and there might be four starters who didn't run in the Derby. Among them is Kandaly, who was scratched a couple of hours before the race because of the sloppy track. Twelve horses is a conservative estimate for the Baltimore race and 14 is the limit, with total career earnings determining the cuts.

Can Go For Gin repeat?

"There's no question that he likes Churchill Downs," Zito said Sunday. "I wish I could take this place, put it in a bottle and take it over there. But he never runs a bad race, no matter what the track. And as long as we don't draw post 13, and Holy Bull gets the four, I think he'll run a good race at Pimlico, too.

"Don't take anything away from him because of the slop. He came here, trained super and earned it. He's the Kentucky Derby champion, and he's legitimate."

And he is lucky, surviving one of the worst starts in Derby history. Holy Bull was one of seven horses that had trouble, and the congestion on the clubhouse turn hindered four horses. Even Go For Gin ducked out at the start, knocking Tabasco Cat into Brocco.

While Zito reviewed the race at his barn Sunday, a figure approached from far down the shedrow, wearing a brown touring cap and a blue, hip-length rain slicker. It was Charlie Whittingham, the 81-year-old Hall of Fame trainer who failed to get his third Derby victory when Strodes Creek finished second, two lengths behind Go For Gin.

"You can win all the derbies in the world, but this is the honor," Zito said as Whittingham got closer.

Whittingham reached Zito and shook his hand.

"You're a fine Italian boy," Whittingham said.

"I took a page out of your book," Zito said. "You've always said that you should bring a horse to the Derby only when you have a chance."

Whittingham will try to block Go For Gin's Triple Crown bid with Numerous, who won the Derby Trial and then skipped the Derby. Strodes Creek, bred for distance, will run in the final Triple Crown race, the Belmont Stakes on June 11.

Whittingham said the $1-million Triple Crown bonus, which was discontinued this year, might have kept Strodes Creek in the Preakness. The bonus, offered from 1987 through 1993 to the horse who earned the most points in all three races, was won by Whittingham's Sunday Silence, the Derby-Preakness winner, in 1989. The $5-million guarantee remains for a Triple Crown.

In 1991, Strike The Gold ran sixth in the Preakness, then lost by a head to Hansel in the Belmont after a gritty stretch duel.

"Strike The Gold didn't like to run on the inside," Zito said. "But that's where he was, and that took us out of our game plan."

At 1 3/16 miles, the Preakness is the shortest of the Triple Crown races. The Derby is 1 1/4 miles and the Belmont 1 1/2 miles.

"I think the Preakness is the hardest of the three to win," Zito said. "You don't know if your horse is going to like the track, and the chances are good that he's never run on it before. The turns at Pimlico are sharp. And there's only two weeks between that race and the Derby."

Horse Racing Notes

The Preakness probables from the Kentucky Derby include Go For Gin, Blumin Affair, Brocco, Tabasco Cat, Powis Castle and Holy Bull. The probables are Soul Of The Matter and Valiant Nature. Other possibilities include Numerous, Kandaly and Concern and Silver Goblin, who ran first and third, respectively, in the Arkansas Derby. . . . Chris McCarron rode Numerous to victory in the Derby Trial, but he will remain Go For Gin's rider. Eddie Delahoussaye might ride Numerous in the Preakness; he rode Strodes Creek in the Derby.

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