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LOUISVILLE - Trainer Nick Zito anticipated the question. How would he feel if he fails to win the Kentucky Derby with one of his five highly competitive starters Saturday?
And he had his answer ready - disappointed.
"You're human, you have to feel whatever the feeling is this is not a gimme. They're not handing us the Kentucky Derby," he said yesterday.
"Of course, I'm going to feel something because I have five legitimate chances."
Zito's horses, tucked away behind a temporary fence in Churchill Downs' Barn 36, include the early Derby favorite, George Steinbrenner's Bellamy Road; High Fly and Noble Causeway, the 1-2 finishers in the Florida Derby; Tampa Bay Derby winner Sun King; and Andromeda's Hero, the third-place finisher in the Arkansas Derby. Zito said he will take away some positive feelings Saturday even if he fails to add a third Derby win to those he scored with Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go for Gin '94.
"I'm a human being, but I'll still take it in stride and realize what an accomplishment it's been and how fortunate I am. This is a unique situation and I don't think it'll happen again. We have five horses and you know their five names, and they're all good," he said.
"If you're a competitor you want to win, but right now I've got to be an absolute joke to be anything but grateful."
Zito's group is so balanced that there's no consensus among competitors on which horse they have to beat. Tim Ritchey, trainer of second Derby pick Afleet Alex, for example, said he believes Sun King is Zito's best horse and that Noble Causeway is one of the horses he fears the most.
Zito, who has been careful to not show any favoritism among five horses with five different owners, was cautious when told of Ritchey's comments about Sun King, who was fourth in the Blue Grass Stakes in his previous race.
"He's doing extremely well," Zito said. "He's getting madder as the week goes on. He's attacking the ground. He's like Go for Gin. He can't get enough of Churchill Downs right now. I know he's a much better horse than [he showed in] the Blue Grass. I know Sun King has to run better than that."
He gave his overlooked Florida Derby duo a little attention, too.
High Fly, he said, "is an amazing horse. He's a worthy horse, too. Terrific. We love our chances with him, too.'' "[But] you're going to have pressure no matter what you do. You know what Billy Turner said about training [Triple Crown champion] Seattle Slew? 'It's more pressure when you don't have Seattle Slew.'●"
And so Zito harkened back to a metaphor he used in his early days of Derby training to describe how he'll feel escorting five solid starters to the paddock before the 131st Run for the Roses.
"I said it in like '90 or '91, it'll be like walking over to the Coliseum with the Roman Army. Like you're a gladiator," he said.
MIXED EMOTIONS: Twenty years ago, Hall-of-Fame jockey Angel Cordero won the Kentucky Derby, leading wire-to-wire with Spend a Buck.
Now the jockey agent for John Velazquez, Cordero marks the 20th anniversary with mixed emotions.
"I remember he went fast. I remember we won. I remember I got cheated - I didn't get my share of the $2 million," said Cordero, who has been moonlighting this week as an exercise rider for trainer Todd Pletcher.
Cordero referred to a $2 million bonus Garden State Park owner Robert Brennan offered any horse who could sweep the Garden State Stakes, Kentucky Derby and Jersey Derby. The decision by Spend a Buck's owner, Dennis Diaz, to go to the Jersey Derby meant the colt couldn't run in the Preakness Stakes, and it caused quite a controversy.
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