05/04/2005 11:00PM

Fab Five take on big hurdle

Trainer Nick Zito, with wife, Kim, has no thoughts of sweeping the top five spots in the Derby.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - By this time next week, the PVC pipe version of St. Peter's Square will be ancient history, hopefully recycled for use in 4-H projects involving less volatile livestock.

Still, it has been entertaining, watching each morning as Nick Zito mounts his six-inch platform, placed strategically in a media-friendly corner of the mini-corral that has protected Derby favorite Bellamy Road, High Fly, Noble Causeway, Sun King, and Andromeda's Hero from the ink-stained wretches clamoring for insight. It has been called Fort Zito, the Great Wall of Zito, Nicktown, and the like, but a scene from the "Magnificent Seven" keeps popping to mind:

Yul Brynner: "There are a lot more walls."

Eli Wallach: "They won't keep me out."

Yul Brynner: "They were meant to keep you in."

Visitors have reacted with delight.

"We can't believe how accessible your trainers are over here," said David Ashforth of England's Racing Post as he elbowed his way into position for a prime Zito view. "Leading up to our Derby, there are some trainers who never say a thing. You could put up a cardboard cut-out where Nick is standing, with a little caption coming out of their mouth, 'They're all doing fine.' "

Give Zito credit for reading the landscape and reacting like a protective mother bear. Media heat on the Churchill Downs backstretch during Derby week has risen to alarming levels, like global warming, threatening to melt even the coolest practitioners of the training craft. Imagine the Super Bowl press wandering around locker rooms and massage tables, and toeing up to the edge of the practice field. But since there is really no way to replicate the security and comforts of home - in this case Zito's spacious Belmont hacienda barn with its interior pasture - he did the next best thing.

"I'm one who believes that horses pick up on the vibes of the people around them," Zito said one morning this week, from his side of the fence. "I didn't want to transmit anything negative to the horses."

In the case of Zito's Fabulous Five, they all seemed to have weathered the week well. The downside of batching so many Derby starters in one trainer's hands, though, is a certain loss of individual identity, for both the horses and the owners involved. Even Bellamy Road's boss, George Steinbrenner, must take a backseat to the sheer weight of Zito's cargo.

And yet, as Zito conceded, numbers do not guarantee success. They help, as occurred in 1996 when Wayne Lukas threw five at the Derby and ended up winning it with Grindstone by the narrowest nose in the history of the race. His other four were third, sixth, 10th, and 18th.

"They're not giving us anything," Zito said. "We have to earn it."

Of course, there is always the fantasy flipside. What if Zito looked up at the end of Saturday's 131st Derby to see his colts finished first, second, third, fourth, and fifth. He shakes his head at the absurdity of the thought.

"We came here to win the race," he said. "That will be hard enough."

Impossible to believe, but it has happened before. Not in the Derby, of course. Only three trainers have even managed to finish first and second, and they had names like H.G. "Hard Guy" Bedwell, H.J. "Derby Dick" Thompson, and B.A. "Plain Ben" Jones.

It happened in a race just as big as the Kentucky Derby, however, known as the Cheltenham Gold Cup, an event with tradition so deep that the collective ego of nations rides on the results. The date was March 17, 1983, and the trainer who did it was Michael Dickinson, who trained Bellamy Road until January of this year.

"It's the Kentucky Derby of steeplechasing," Dickinson said. "The Olympic Games of steeplechasing. It is a battle between England, Ireland, and France, three countries that have been fighting each other in one way or another for two thousand years."

Dickinson had five of the 12 starters in the Gold Cup - a race of three miles, 2 1/2 furlongs and 22 fences - and finished first through fifth with Bregawn, Captain John, Wayward Lad, Silver Buck, and Ashley House. His recollections echo what Zito has been going through in the run-up to this year's Derby.

"There was eight weeks of tension and pressure," Dickinson said. "All we wanted to do was win. And we didn't have to, either. There were some very tough horses in there against us.

"In the end, I didn't really enjoy the day," Dickinson added. "It was lovely to win, but Silver Buck and Wayward Lad were the best of ours, and they didn't run their races. It's not easy competing against yourself, if you really care about your horses."

Dickinson's sweep was a monumental achievement, and the attention propelled him into the flat racing world, first with Robert Sangster in England and then on his own in America, where he has made an indelible impression with horses such as Da Hoss, Tapit, A Heuvo, Cetewayo, Soto, and Bowman Mill, just to name a few.

Reduced to a spectator for this year's Derby, Dickinson could end up finding himself in the company of trainers such as John Kimmel (Thunder Gulch), Ray Bell (Charismatic) or Frank Springer (War Emblem) who had recent Derby winners slip their grasp, either through sale or transfer. Bill White, who trained High Fly until February, is in the same boat. But there is a difference. Dickinson, at least, will always have Cheltenham.