08/04/2005 12:00AM

A lifelong passion, a dream come true

Nick Zito, twice the winning trainer in the Kentucky Derby, enters the Hall of Fame Monday.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Nick Zito's obsession with Thoroughbred racing and the Triple Crown began the first time he watched the Kentucky Derby on television. He was 10 years old.

"It was the 1958 Kentucky Derby," Zito said. "Tim Tam won it, Lincoln Road was second. I think I picked Lincoln Road."

Zito's love affair with racing was ignited, and his passion for the sport has never wavered. His goal was to participate in the sport's biggest events, to be successful, and to someday make it to the Hall of Fame.

After two Kentucky Derby victories, a Preakness, a Belmont, and a host of other Grade 1 scores in his 33-year career, Zito's goal of making it to the Hall of Fame will be achieved Monday when he becomes the 80th trainer to be inducted.

"When I was a kid, I went to the Hall of Fame, I looked at those plaques, I looked at those horses that won," said Zito, 57. "I went to plenty of ceremonies. I heard the people that got inducted, in my 20's, in my 30's, in my 40's. I felt it all along how it is. I dreamed of it all the time being in the Hall of Fame.

"I will say this," Zito added. "I was disgusted when I thought I was being overlooked. But you know what - you got to earn your way in; it's tough. There are people, unfortunately, that will never get in, and I think that's a sad thing. I just appreciate the fact that we got in."

Zito's career has been marked by his participation in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont. He won the Kentucky Derby in 1991 with Strike the Gold and again in 1994 with Go for Gin. His Preakness victory came in 1996 with Louis Quatorze. And, after 11 tries, Zito won his first Belmont last year with Birdstone, who also gave Zito his first Travers trophy that summer.

Throughout the 1990's, Zito's rival in the Triple Crown was D. Wayne Lukas. From 1994 to 1996, Lukas won seven classic races while Zito won two.

"I think he's an excellent horsemen," said Lukas, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999. "He's dedicated, he's got that passion that we all need when you work seven days a week, and I always thought he was a real good opponent. The nice thing about it was we were able to compete head to head in those major events and keep a good friendship."

Zito said of Lukas: "I got to thank him for pushing me - and I mean pushing me in a good way - because we had such a great rivalry. I have a lot of respect for Wayne."

This year, Zito did something that only Lukas had done before - run five horses in one Kentucky Derby. Zito did Lukas one better by running horses for five different owners. Unfortunately, the Derby did not go well, as Bellamy Road, the favorite, finished seventh. Andromeda's Hero (8th), High Fly (10th), Noble Causeway (14th), and Sun King (15th) were Zito's other Derby runners.

"The whole thing was kind of tough to swallow, but on the other hand we were happy to be there," Zito said. "You got to be lucky and blessed and grateful, because believe it or not there are no guarantees that Nick Zito is going to get there next year."

Zito is looking for a strong second half of the season with his 3-year-olds. Bellamy Road has recovered from his splint bone injury and is likely to return in the King's Bishop at Saratoga on Aug. 27. Zito remains high on the colt, who won the Wood Memorial by 17 1/2 lengths.

"There's no question in my mind Bellamy Road is a special horse," Zito said. "If the man upstairs is good to me and he stays healthy and sound, I think he'll get a chance to show how good he was, like he was in the Wood Memorial."

Before his Hall of Fame induction, Zito will have a plethora of horses running in graded stakes this weekend. Saturday, Zito will run Commentator and Sir Shackleton in the Grade 1 Whitney Handicap as well as Hide and Chic and In the Gold in the Grade 1 Test.

Sunday, Zito will send out Sun King in the Grade 1 Haskell at Monmouth Park and Middle Earth in the Grade 3 Amsterdam here. Tracy Farmer, who has had horses with Zito for nearly 10 years, owns the horses running in the Whitney, Haskell, and Amsterdam.

"I can come to the barn anytime, that's where Nick is," said Farmer, whose best horse trained by Zito was the multiple Grade 1 winner Albert the Great. "In fact I've never known him to take a vacation. I think he's a great trainer. He deserves the Hall of Fame."