Sunday, June 8, 2008

Nick Zito, Giant Killer

A generation ago trainer Allen Jerkins saddled a horse named Onion to beat Triple Crown champion Secretariat and earned the nickname "The Giant Killer."
Today there's a new giant killer on the New York racing circuit. Trainer Nick Zito has earned the title after sending out horses to foil Triple Crown bid in the Belmont Stakes twice in the last four years.
Zito put across Da' Tara, the longest shot in the race at 38-1, to win the 140th Belmont Saturday, four years after he spoiled
the "Smarty Party" when Smarty Jones made his bid for the Triple Crown in the Belmont only to be run down in the final yards by the Zito-trained 36-1 longsahot Birdstone. This time the drama was over long before Da' Tara crossed the wire ahead of Denis of Cork by five and a quarter lengths. Zito told jockey Alan Garcia "Just put him on the lead, he's getting better and better," and Da'Tara led
every step of the way.
Garcia set a measured pace through a half mile in :48.30 and six furlongs in 1:12.90 with Tale of Ekati and Big Brown tracking him closely. As Da' Tara approached the stretch jockey Kent Desormeaux pulled Big Brown up and suddenly Da'Tara had an enormous lead heading down the stretch as the field broke up behind him. Da'
Tara bore out through the stretch but was so far clear of the rest none of them had a shot at catching him.
After Zito won the Belmont in 2004 he apologized to the connections of Smarty Jones for ruining their party. This time aroundb Zito took his victory in stride, kissing the trophy in the winner's circle.
"I've been second six times in this race and third a bunch of times," said Zito. "We have a history in the race."
Not only did Zito win the Belmont with the longest shot in the race, Da' Tara, he also saddled the second-longest shot in the Belmont, Anak Nakal, to finish third in a dead heat at 34-1.
Zito was characteristically gracious in his post race remarks, taking nothing away from Big Brown.
"If Big Brown was himself he would have been tough to beat," said Zito. "He wasn't and that's why they play the game."
Zito knows what it's like to have the favorite fail to live up to expectations. He had his own Triple Crown hopeful this year with Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner War Pass, who was sidelined by injury and didn't compete in the Triple Crown.
But he knew he had an ace in the hole.
"Da' Tara was one of Nick's favorite horses from the very beginning," said owner Robert LaPenta.
Zito suggested that LaPenta name the horse after "Zatara," the nickname of the hero of Alexandre Dumas' novel "The Count of Monte Cristo."
"I bought this horse at Saratoga," said Zito. "It was an absolutely spectacular looking horse."
Da' Tara's victory is one of the most dramatic reversals in recent racing history. He was beaten more than 23 lengths by Big Brown this past March in the Florida Derby.
Zito noted that his horse was improving, but he was more than willing to admit that the result was just as unexpected as Birdstone's was over Smarty Jones.
"They both are surprising and both gratifying," he said. "They're longshots. (Big Brown) wasn't himself today. We took advantage of that."
Spoken like a true giant killer.

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