ELMONT, NY – Count Nick Zito as one of horse racing’s few human celebrities.
Zito’s name is well known to casual racing fans, a byproduct of two victories each in the Belmont Stakes and the Kentucky Derby as well
as a Preakness win. The 2005 Hall of Fame inductee is a mainstay in Triple Crown competitions and is the trainer of Miner’s Escape
and Brave Victory, which comprise one-fifth of the field for the 14st Belmont Stakes Saturday.
Both colts carry 15-1 odds. At 20-1, Luv Gov is the longest long-shot. But Zito’s propensity for upsets was reaffirmed with Da’Tara’s upset victory here last year and there’s a chance that another Zito-trained horse can thwart favorite Mine That Bird and take the million dollar purse.
“They are both interesting because they don’t have what I would call Triple Crown credentials,” Zito said. “But they were up-and-coming two year olds. As three-year olds, they are approaching rapidly into this league.
“They both come into this race not quite with the credentials of the top-three year olds but right underneath them. Maybe Saturday, they just get good for that day. We’ll see what happens.”
Part of Belmont’s charm
is the uncertainty of a 1 ½ mile track. No horse has raced on a track that long, which is conducive to upset victories. Da’Tara exemplifies that uncertainty, preventing Big Crown from becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner last year despite 38-1 odds.
Robert LaPenta owned Da’Tara and also bought Zito’s two horses, giving the team a chance to repeat history. Miner’s Escape struggled at the start of his career, not winning his first race until his sixth start before recording a 4 ½-length Frederico Tesio Stakes victory.
Unlike Dunkirk and his $3.7 million price tag, Brave Victory was bought for $200,000. The horse took a liking to Belmont Park, breaking his maiden there in September 2008 by surging to a 7 ¼-length victory.
“The Belmont is a unique race,” Zito said Thursday morning from inside Belmont Park’s grandstand. “It’s a race where a horse looks like he’s making a move, he makes a move. “It takes a special horse pedigree-wise. He has to to have something in his genes to make him go a mile and a half.”
Mine That Bird jockey Calvin Borel guaranteed victory and is looking to become the first jockey to win a personal Triple Crown riding two different horses. After winning the Derby and coming a close second at Pimlico, Zito said the favorite’s identity is clear.
“It’s Mine That Bird‘s race to lose,” he said Wednesday. “Other than that, it’s pretty wide open. You can make a case for anybody.
“It all depends how the race shapes up. If it’s difficult for him, with his running style, he could be second or third.”
Freshness should benefit Miner’s Escape and Brave Victory since both horses skipped the Triple Crown’s first two legs. The two horses will start side-by-side, with Miner’s Escape drawing post nine and Brave Victory starting on the outside of post 10 in the 10-horse field.
Zito, a Queens native who currently lives in Garden City, also said the rules should not be changed to make it easier to snag a Triple Crown title. Affirmed’s 1978 run is the last time the feat was accomplished. He said the venues and the distances and duration between races should not be altered.
“The Triple Crown is a very hard thing to do and right now, we have to leave it that way,” Zito said. “Kentucky, Maryland and New York are the perfect destinations.”