For Nick Zito, this is Preakness redux. When Go For Gin, this year's Kentucky Derby winner, runs at Pimlico Saturday, it will mark the fourth consecutive year the 46-year-old trainer has saddled a horse for the middle race of the Triple Crown.
Too Wild, 11th last year, and Agincourt, seventh in 1992, are but footnotes in the Zito history. His most memorable Preakness came in 1991 with Strike The Gold, because he, too, reached Baltimore after having won the Derby.
Go For Gin has a different personality, and the circumstances surrounding his Preakness bid are also different.
The owners aren't squabbling, as they were about Strike The Gold. Zito is in control. Go For Gin is his horse, and he's calling the shots. Chris McCarron is the jockey, a world-class Hall of Fame rider who will listen to Zito's paddock instructions and adjust during the race.
"Chris Antley is a good rider," Zito said, "but the way he rode Strikey in the Preakness, he took us out of our game plan. I couldn't have a better rider than McCarron (who rode Go For Gin for the first time in his two-length Derby victory). He's won more than 5,900 races, and about half of them have come here (in Maryland). He's a guy who analyzes a race better than, or at least as well as, any guy around."
In the early going, Strike The Gold was almost nine lengths back, and that's not the ideal way to win a Preakness, a 1 3/16-mile race--110 yards shorter than the Derby and 5/16ths of a mile shorter than the Belmont, the finale to the Triple Crown. Horses with good tactical speed, who can be positioned within striking distance early, are the most successful in the longer races at Pimlico. Go For Gin has this effective speed and led for all but the first quarter-mile at Churchill Downs on May 7.
Strike The Gold's dismal sixth-place finish in the Preakness was the beginning of a sour end to his once-promising career. Antley was off and on the horse after the Preakness, and the defeat started a 12-race losing streak that didn't end until May of 1992, when he won the Pimlico Special, only a few days after Bill Condren and Joe Cornacchia had bought out their estranged partner, B. Giles Brophy. Looking over Zito's shoulder was Brophy's style when he ran the partnership.
"The way Strikey ran in the Preakness was not the way the horse had trained for the race," Zito said this week. "There was the owner problem, which created incredible tension, and then for the race we had come out of our game plan."
Condren and Cornacchia paid $150,000 for Go For Gin at a yearling auction, after the Cormorant-Never Knock colt had first been sold as a weanling for $32,000. The limelight from a Derby victory seems to be big enough for both owners, and Zito is a more relaxed trainer, even though he has been put on the defensive because of the way his horse won this Distress Derby.
Go For Gin had never won a major race, was winless in three pre-Derby starts and was the 9-1 sixth choice at Louisville. When the track came up sloppy, however, he was handed a running surface that he was expected to relish. Then the two favorites, Holy Bull and Brocco, got away poorly, which was a prelude to what one of the Churchill Downs stewards, Bernie Hettel, said was the roughest Derby he'd seen in about 20 years.
"Just about everybody had trouble but the winner," said trainer Ron McAnally, whose Valiant Nature was roughed up at the first turn. "The winner didn't break straight, but he still got out of there quick enough so that he was up front, clear of all that trouble that happened on the turn."
Brocco and Holy Bull finished fourth and 12th, respectively, and Valiant Nature was 13th in the 14-horse field. Holy Bull and Valiant Nature are finished in the Triple Crown, and Brocco is skipping the Preakness to rest for the Belmont on June 11.
"The Derby didn't prove anything," said Jimmy Jones, a Hall of Fame trainer who combined with his father, Ben Jones, to win the race eight times. "It was like a rodeo. Everything happened. Everybody stepped on everybody's toes. Holy Bull got turned upside down at the start. Valiant Nature got turned upside down at the first turn. There was one incident after another. The winner got a springboard at the start and never looked back. If you ran those horses again, you'd probably get a different story."
The congenial Zito has been handling these speculative Derby analyses with equanimity. He has to because he frequently says luck is one of the important ingredients in racing.
"I'm going to stick to my guns," Zito said. "My horse has won some races over tracks that weren't muddy. As a 2-year-old, he won the Remsen (at Aqueduct), a race that's been won by the great Northern Dancer and the great Damascus."
Since 1982, only two Derby winners--Alysheba in 1987 and Sunday Silence in 1989--have also won the Preakness, and both were thwarted in the Belmont. The 11th and most recent Triple Crown champion is still Affirmed in 1978.
"I'd like to try for a shot at destiny," Zito said. "The opportunity is the big thing. Winning the Preakness means everything, because then you can go back there with two-thirds of the crown. Then if you lose the Belmont and the $5 million (in purses and bonus for a Triple Crown sweep), at least you can say that you gave it your best shot."
Horse Racing Notes
Pat Valenzuela, who rode the race of his life on Sunday Silence to edge Pat Day and Easy Goer by a nose in the 1989 Preakness, has replaced Eddie Delahoussaye on Numerous for Saturday's Preakness. Delahoussaye notified trainer Charlie Whittingham Tuesday that flu would keep him out of the Preakness, and Valenzuela was excused from his mounts Saturday at Hollywood Park. . . . A field of 11 is likely for the 119th Preakness. Besides Go For Gin, the probable starters are Blumin Affair, Kandaly, Numerous, Polar Expedition, Powis Castle, Silver Goblin, Tabasco Cat, Shiprock and the Dick Small-trained entry of Concern and Looming. . . . The early morning line lists Go For Gin as the 2-1 favorite, with the Small entry at 7-2 and Numerous at 9-2. . . . Paradise Creek, who upset the 3-10 Lure at Churchill Downs two weeks ago, will meet the two-time Breeders' Cup Mile winner Friday at Pimlico in the $150,000 Early Times Dixie Handicap.