09/06/2004 11:00PM

Getting the best of both worlds


TUCSON, Ariz. - I now have lived long enough to see the narrowing of The Great Divide, that provincial gulf that has separated owners of Thoroughbred and harness horses.

When David Willmot and Bob Anderson's 2-year-old pacing filly Cabrini Hanover won Woodbine's $760,000 premier juvenile filly event last Saturday night, and Nick and Kim Zito's 2-year-old trotting filly Centerfold Hall just missed remaining undefeated in six lifetime starts at the historic Red Mile in Lexington, Ky., a night later, it marked a crossing I have always hoped to see.

Willmot and Anderson, long involved in the Thoroughbred world, and Zito, one of its greatest trainers, now are successful harness horse owners, as well, playing at the top of the game.

It is not the first successful foray for Willmot and Anderson. They made their debut a few years ago with the trotting filly Southwind Allaire, a major stakes winner that earned $733,534 as a 2- and 3-year-old. Last fall they switched gait, and their first pacing filly, Cabrini Hanover, is undefeated in four lifetime starts this year and has won $327,554, in U.S. dollars, with big money still ahead this fall.

For the Zitos, it started as fun, but if their first trotting filly continues to win, it also will be profitable. She suffered her first narrow loss Sunday night in a race that was won by Touch of Moni, the first foal of the all-time money-winning trotting mare Moni Maker, who earned $5.9 million racing in this country and in Europe from 1995 to 2000.

The leading U.S. male trotting money winner, Mack Lobell, won $3.9 million, and the current active leading money-winning trotter, Fools Goal, is closing in on $3 million. Thirty pacers have won $2 million or more. The money is there.

Willmot became interested in harness racing at Woodbine in Toronto and Mohawk Raceway in Campbellville, Ontario, and he brought Anderson along for the fun. He knew from experience as a Thoroughbred breeder and owner at his Kinghaven Farm that the top harness yearlings, trotting or pacing, cost between $200,000 and $400,000, instead of the $2 to $3 million the top Thoroughbred yearlings bring. He knew from running racetracks what kind of purses the harness horses now have available.

The Zitos got started through their friendship with Alan and Meg Leavitt, who run one of the world's major Standardbred breeding establishments at their Walnut Hall Limited in Kentucky. While having dinner with the Leavitts one evening last fall, talking of their common interest in anti-horse slaughter legislation (Zito is a spokesman for Thoroughbred racing on that cause), Nick said to Kim, "We ought to live a little and get ourselves a pacer." Leavitt, a Harvard graduate with unlimited smarts, said, "If you're serious you should make it a trotter." From breeding some of the world's best at both gaits, Leavitt knew that with fewer horses, but with purses just as big as those for pacers, trotters provide better odds in the high-risk world of racing.

Leavitt asked trainer Fred Grant, who had six of his horses, to pick two likely prospects for a Zito partnership. Grant picked a pacing filly and a trotting colt, and the Zitos were in business.

A few months later, Grant had become less and less enchanted with the trotting colt, and far more enthusiastic with a trotting filly named Centerfold Hall. He reported that fact to his boss, and Leavitt picked up the phone and told Nick Zito, "You're now 50 percent partners in a trotting filly instead of a trotting colt."

So far the filly is a rising star. The night after the Travers, the Zitos traveled down Nelson Avenue to Saratoga Raceway and watched Centerfold Hall win in Lexington. Kim Zito was screaming at the TV, and Nick said the gamblers were looking at him with amusement. Trainer Grant called trainer Zito to congratulate him on his one-two Travers triumph with Birdstone and The Cliff's Edge, but he said all Zito wanted to talk about was Centerfold Hall and her training routine.

I have a rooting interest now to keep this crossover going. I feel the same about it as I did during the years I worked with Dave Johnson and the late Thoroughbred trainer Frank Wright doing New York City OTB's harness racing show. I was not then, and am not now, seeking to make converts. I'm simply trying to develop switch hitters, who can appreciate the beauty - and the profits - available to the astute, and the lucky, in both sports.

The Zito stable, incidentally, is called Lucky Shamrock. Nick Zito understands.