11/01/2011 2:50PM

Breeders' Cup: Wire hasn't been kind to Zito

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Tom Keyser
Jackson Bend is in razor-sharp form coming into the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. − As a racing fan, Nick Zito enjoys the Breeders’ Cup because it affords the opportunity to showcase the best horses in training over two days.

As a trainer, Zito has endured some brutal beats over the last two decades in Thoroughbred racing’s richest event. While Zito has been fortunate enough to win two Breeders’ Cup races from 35 starters − the 1996 Juvenile Fillies with Storm Song and the 2007 Juvenile with War Pass − he is a nose, two necks, and a head away from being regarded as one of the more successful trainers in the 27-year history of the series.

“The Breeders’ Cup has been tough,” Zito said.

In fact, the narrow margins by which Zito’s horses have lost Breeders’ Cup races have been worth $2.2 million in purse earnings. Zito, who has five seconds and four thirds to go with his two victories, ranks 16th in Breeders’ Cup history with $5.3 million in earnings.

Saturday at Churchill Downs, Zito will be participating in his 15th Breeders’ Cup when he sends out Jackson Bend in the $1.5 million Sprint and Ice Box in the $5 million Classic. While Ice Box figures to be a prohibitive longshot against Uncle Mo, Havre de Grace, and Flat Out, Jackson Bend could vie for favoritism in a wide-open nine-horse field.

“A lot of people like him in the Sprint,” Zito, 63, said. “A lot of horsemen whose opinion I respect think he could do that.”

Zito had considered the Dirt Mile as well as the Sprint for Jackson Bend. While Zito was initially leaning toward the Mile, he had a change of heart after pre-entries came out last week and entered Jackson Bend in the Sprint. It was somewhat reminiscent of last year, when Zito had been pointing Morning Line to the Classic only to call an audible on entry day and put him in the Dirt Mile.

While it turned out to be a wise decision, Morning Line’s head loss to longshot Dakota Phone was just the latest tough beat Zito has suffered in the Breeders’ Cup.

A 3-year-old, Morning Line entered the Dirt Mile off a victory in the Pennsylvania Derby at Parx. John Velazquez rode him that day but was committed to Aikenite in the Dirt Mile. Javier Castellano rode Morning Line in the Dirt Mile. In the race, Morning Line dueled outside of Hurricane Ike and Tizway through a half-mile in 44.94 seconds and six furlongs in 1:09.44. Despite those hot fractions, Morning Line put away his pace challengers turning for home, only to be run down by a head by 37-1 shot Dakota Phone, who rallied seven wide in the stretch.

“He beat every freaking horse in the race, then that longshot came and got him,” Zito said. “He ran a great race.”

Zito’s other two runners in last year’s Breeders’ Cup put in respectable efforts. Cool Coal Man finished fourth in the Dirt Mile at 33-1, and Fly Down finished third behind Blame and Zenyatta in the Classic at 26-1.

Zito is winless with 13 runners in 12 editions of the Classic. He came tantalizingly close to upsetting the 1996 Classic at Woodbine with the 3-year-old Louis Quatorze, who fell a nose short to the 5-year-old Alphabet Soup while finishing a head in front of the 6-year-old Cigar, the defending BC Classic winner.

In that race, Louis Quatorze chased Atticus through a half-mile in 46.40 seconds, then found himself between horses with Alphabet Soup to his outside and Atticus to his inside before Mt. Sassafras, a 101-1 longshot, supplanted Atticus as the leader just before the quarter pole. Louis Quatorze, ridden by Pat Day, fought on while in tight between horses in the stretch but was outfinished by Alphabet Soup under Chris McCarron.

“Pat had so much horse, but he was in jam,” Zito said. “Louis was a big, long-striding horse, and he just couldn’t get that free-running deal, and McCarron got the jump on us with Alphabet Soup.”

The 1996 Breeders’ Cup was actually a mixed bag for Zito. The day began with Zito running 1-2 in the Juvenile Fillies with Storm Song and Love That Jazz.

But a couple of races later, Zito finished second in the Juvenile with Acceptable, who couldn’t catch the front-running Boston Harbor under Jerry Bailey. Acceptable, owned by George Steinbrenner, broke from post 9 in a 10-horse field, raced five wide into the first turn under Shane Sellers and three wide down the backside, and just hung a little in the stretch, losing by a neck.

“That first turn, that’s where he lost the race,” Zito said. “Shane did a good job, he just couldn’t get over.”

In the 1995 Sprint, Mr. Greeley, one of just two 3-year-olds in the 13-horse field, raced outside of the 5-year-old mare Desert Stormer every step through fractions of 21.71 seconds, 44.52, and 56.54 but could never get by, losing by a neck under Julie Krone.

Zito believes Kent Desormeaux, the rider of Desert Stormer, intimidated Mr. Greeley by waving his whip near the colt’s face.

“She probably should have hit him once left-handed to get away from the other horse,” Zito said. “Instead, she was basically [hand-riding] the horse.”

In Jackson Bend, Zito sends out a horse in razor-sharp form, having won the James Marvin and Grade 1 Forego at Saratoga and finishing a solid second to Uncle Mo in the Kelso. Jackson Bend is probably a seven-furlong specialist, but he did win twice going six furlong as a 2-year-old.

Zito believes because of Jackson Bend’s small stature and his humble breeding − he is by the stallion Hear No Evil − he has become somewhat of a fan favorite.

“That’s what makes it great,” Zito said. “You never know where a good horse comes from. He’s second choice, and that’s a feat in itself. If you had told me on July 22 before the gates opened for the James Marvin I’m going to be second choice in the Sprint, I would have said, ‘Where do I sign?’”