Among the Hall of Fame inductees in attendance and acknowledged at Friday’s ceremonies at the Fasig-Tipton Company sales pavilion was trainer Nick Zito. The once ubiquitous Zito has not been as prominent in recent years, but he still has hopes of finding the types of young horses he used to pick out at the sales year after year on a regular basis. To him it was all about finding classic-type horses and then developing them to peak in the spring of their 3-year-old campaign.
Before there was a Bob Baffert, the face of Thoroughbred racing was Zito, who was the first trainer to become a true media star on a national scale in the early-to-mid ‘90s. It was Zito who was declared the unofficial mayor of Louisville after becoming the face of the Kentucky Derby following his victories in 1991 and 1994, while becoming one of the most colorful trainers ever to win the Run for the Roses. It was Zito who was sought out for autographs, speeches, and various functions. It was Zito to whom people sent drinks to his table at restaurants and who would stop by just to say hello or take a photo with him.
Although Zito was the most high-profiled trainer in racing, in some ways even more so than the king, D. Wayne Lukas, when at the barn you could mistake the native New Yorker for a groom, as he was often seen on his knees in a stall working on a horse’s legs.
Zito’s name has not been in the news much in recent years, especially after losing many of his bigger clients, especially Robert La Penta. For years, Zito would pick out classic-type horses for LaPenta at the yearling sales only to see them pinhooked as 2-year-olds and wind up stakes winners for other trainers. But the success in major races of the RNAs that he would get to keep was remarkable. It was frustrating for Zito not to get to keep the majority of the horses he picked out, but LaPenta had his agenda and for years it worked, as evidenced by the number of top-class horses they sent out, mainly in classic and grade I races.
During their time together, Zito and LaPenta teamed up to win an Eclipse Award for champion 2-year-old male with War Pass, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Champagne Stakes; the Belmont Stakes with 38-1 shot Da’ Tara; the Florida Derby with Dialed In and Ice Box, the Blue Grass Stakes with The Cliff’s Edge, and the Carter and Forego Handicaps with Jackson Bend. They also finished second in the Kentucky Derby with an unlucky Ice Box, second in the Belmont with Andromeda’s Hero, second in the Travers with The Cliff’s Edge, third in the Preakness with Jackson Bend, and fourth in the Preakness with Dialed In.
Zito, in fact, has compiled a remarkable record in classic races, bursting on the scene with victories in the Kentucky Derby by Strike the Gold in 1991 for B. Giles Brophy and Go For Gin in 1994 for William Condren and Joe Cornacchia, with whom he had many years of success.
Zito would often pick out yearlings at the various sales, only to see them sell for prices beyond his owners’ limits and go on to be successful in major stakes.
To demonstrate just how prominent Zito was in the classics and major 3-year-old races, he finished first, second, or third an amazing 12 times in the Belmont Stakes, including seven runner-up finishes, and 10 times in the Travers Stakes. If you add fourth-place finishes, he hit the board a total of 28 times in both those historic races. He also had multiple victories in the Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, and Blue Grass Stakes, as well a pair of Whitney scores with the New York-bred Commentator, and captured the Champagne Stakes four times. He sent out Albert the Great to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup, running the fastest 1 1/4 miles by a 3-year-old in the history of New York racing.
Zito became known for his post-race verbal celebrations. Through his sandpaper-lined vocal chords came an eruption of cryptic words and phrases that spewed forth from the deepest recesses of his psyche. That was accompanied by thrashing arms and twists and turns of his body. Zito once attempted to devour an ABC television camera before proclaiming his love for God, his children, America, and the entire world.
Unlike the typical trainers who were practically born on a horse or the many who had grown up in the bluegrass, the straight-talking city boy from the streets of Queens, N.Y. had proven that roses can sprout even through cement. After Zito won the 1994 Kentucky Derby, President Bill Clinton called the press box to congratulate him. Zito got on the phone and said, “You’re a good guy, Mr. President; you’re okay,” as if he were sitting with him at the corner bar.
Zito probably is the only trainer in the country who could have thwarted the popular Smarty Jones’s bid to become racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner and not get booed. As crushed as the 120,000 fans in attendance were when 36-1 Birdstone ran down Smarty in the closing strides of the Belmont Stakes, they could not bring themselves to boo Zito, who has always been regarded in New York as one of the good guys and one of their own.
That gives you some idea just how dominant Zito was in major stakes back in his heyday. When Wayne Lukas put together an incredible six consecutive Triple Crown victories from 1994 to 1996, it was Zito who won the last classic prior to the streak, the Kentucky Derby with Go For Gin, and it was Zito who ended the streak, winning the Preakness with Louis Quatorze. The latter would go on to suffer a heartbreaking nose defeat to Alphabet Soup in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, finishing ahead of the great Cigar. In 2010, Ice Box had the trip from hell, getting stopped cold twice on the rail while making a powerful run from the back of the pack before being steered to the middle of the track where he closed fast for second. Many felt he was by far the best horse in the race and should have given Zito his third Kentucky Derby victory.
Although Zito still has several owners who have remained loyal to him, his once powerhouse stable has slowed down considerably. It seems inconceivable, but Zito has not won a stakes of any kind since taking the 2014 Swale Stakes with Spot. That was his only stakes win that year. Prior to that he won three stakes in 2013 and 2012, his only grade I coming in the Carter Handicap.
But Zito keeps plugging away at his home base in Saratoga, looking for that one big horse to get him back on the road to glory that was once so familiar to him. He and his wife Kim are actively involved in Thoroughbred aftercare and have contributed to many of the horse rescue organizations, as well as taking a stand against horse slaughter. Zito also was one of the first supporters of the Old Friends retirement facility back in its early days when they attempted to bring Strike the Gold back to America from Turkey. But Strike the Gold died in Turkey and was the oldest living Kentucky Derby winner at the time of his death. The Zito-trained Commentator currently resides at Old Friends.
Last year, Zito won only 15 races, 10 of them with maidens. This year, he has 12 victories so far, nine of them with maidens. Although this down period has to be tough on him, he is hoping for one of those maidens to hit it big and help launch his career back to the lofty heights it once knew for so many years.