06/03/2010 12:00AM

Lezcano has special finishing touch


ELMONT, N.Y. - Talk about setting the bar high.

When trainer Nick Zito is asked what he likes about jockey Jose Lezcano, the trainer says the 25-year-old rider reminds him of Hall of Fame jockeys Braulio Baeza and Laffit Pincay Jr., who combined to win 12,670 races.

"Braulio knew how to extend a horse and Laffit knew how to finish with one, and to me Jose can do both sometimes," said Zito, a member of the Hall of Fame himself. "So sometimes he reminds me of Baeza and sometimes he reminds me of Pincay."

"He put me in too big of shoes," Lezcano said. "But it's good that he likes me."

Zito is hoping Lezcano can continue to fill those shoes Saturday when the jockey rides Ice Box in the 142nd Belmont Stakes. A victory by Ice Box would give Zito his third Belmont and Lezcano his first. Baeza and Pincay are both three-time Belmont Stakes winners.

Lezcano, who attended the Laffit Pincay Jockey School in his native Panama as a teenager, has emerged as a potential star since coming to the United States in 2004. He has won 1,277 races, including a Breeders' Cup race. He has won riding titles at Tampa Bay Downs, Gulfstream Park, and Monmouth Park. This spring, at Belmont Park, Lezcano is fourth in wins with 19 - seven behind Ramon Dominguez and Javier Castellano - but he is the leading percentage rider at the meet at 26 percent.

"He does make mistakes like all the young riders do, but he's got all the tools," Zito said. "I like to hook on to those types of guys. I did that with Chris Antley and I was right. I think I'm right here too."

Zito almost didn't get the chance to find out if he was right or wrong because Lezcano almost didn't stick around long enough to make his mark in America.

Growing up on a farm in Chiriqui, Panama, Lezcano did not come from a racing family. He attended school in a city near a racetrack in Panama. Instead of going to high school, however, Lezcano would go to the track, without his parents' knowledge.

"Over there you don't have to ask if you want to work for somebody," Lezcano said. "People say 'Do this' or 'Do that,' whatever you want to do; they're looking for help and they don't pay you anything."

After grooming and hotwalking horses for a year, Lezcano attended the Laffit Pincay Jockey School. Among the students there at the time were Eddie Castro, Gabriel Saez, and Fernando Jara.

After two years at the school, Lezcano rode in Panama for several months, winning 54 races. In Panama, an apprentice rider achieves journeyman status after 60 wins, so Lezcano stopped riding in order to come to America and ride as an apprentice.

Lezcano did his apprenticeship in Florida and New York. But after he lost his apprentice status in September 2004, he went into a slump, going 3 for 38 over the next 2 1/2 months.

Frustrated, and having lost his agent, Lezcano strongly considered returning to Panama. But in December 2004, Lezcano hooked up with agent Jason Beides, who was good friends with trainer Kirk Ziadie, one of the leading trainers at Tampa Bay Downs. Lezcano began riding first-call for Ziadie and at the 2004-05 meet he won 62 races, good enough for fourth in the standings. That summer, Lezcano rode at Monmouth, winning 57 races and he was on his way.

In addition to Zito, Lezcano caught the eye of other top-flight horsemen such as Michael Matz and Bobby Frankel. Chad Brown was Frankel's assistant before going out on his own and Frankel used Lezcano a lot at Monmouth.

When Brown went out on his own in 2008, he began using Lezcano and that November the two teamed to win inaugural running of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf with Maram with a strong finish that has become typical of a Lezcano ride.

"I don't know that he was the best finisher when we were around him when I was with Frankel," Brown said. "He had a lot of other qualities but now he can also finish. He's got `X' amount of natural talents on one side and wherever he may have been a little weak - and everybody has weaknesses in their game - he's improving which is going to make him really dangerous."

Lezcano's strong finish was on display in the Kentucky Derby when he rode Ice Box. Trailing throughout the race, Lezcano got Ice Box in gear entering the far turn and the horse was running fastest of all approaching the quarter pole. But Lezcano had to steady and alter course twice on Ice Box in the stretch, which cost him valuable ground. Ice Box was beaten 2 1/2 lengths by Super Saver.

"I had to check too many times," Lezcano said. "I waited inside and tried to find a hole and it didn't work out."

In addition to riding Ice Box, Lezcano also rode Fly Down - Zito's other Belmont starter - to a six-length victory in the Dwyer Stakes. Zito said it was always understood that Lezcano would ride Ice Box in the Belmont. After all, had Lezcano not gotten Ice Box up to finish first by a nose over Pleasant Prince in the Florida Derby, Ice Box might not have made it to the Kentucky Derby.

"He got us there no matter how you look at it," Zito said. "If it wasn't for that nose over Pleasant Prince we wouldn't even be having this discussion today."

Come sundown Saturday, Lezcano and Ice Box just may be the talk of the town.