07/25/2008 12:00AM

Out to stay hot all summer

Barbara D. Livingston
Da' Tara goes through his morning routine Wednesday at Saratoga in preparation for his Jim Dandy start.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Poor Da' Tara. He had just won the biggest race of his career, the Belmont Stakes, but he was merely an afterthought, because all anyone wanted to talk about was not who won, but who lost.

As Da' Tara posed for pictures in the Belmont winner's circle on June 7, the media posse left him to chase after Big Brown and his sweat-soaked trainer, Rick Dutrow. It was an understandable reaction, being as Big Brown was going for the Triple Crown, and all Da' Tara had done, up to that point, was win a maiden race.

But when Da' Tara runs on Sunday in the Grade 2, $500,000 Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga, it is he who will be the focal point, what with Big Brown tucked away at Aqueduct, awaiting the Grade 1, $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth a week later.

The 1 1/8-mile Jim Dandy will be a critical race for Da' Tara. It will be an opportunity for him to prove that the Belmont was not a fluke, that he merely capitalized when Big Brown chucked it a mile into the 1 1/2-mile race. More significantly, the Jim Dandy could help propel Da' Tara into the mix for champion 3-year-old colt. The Jim Dandy is a prep for the Grade 1, $1 million Travers Stakes on Aug. 23. If Da' Tara sweeps the summer at Saratoga, he would have a heck of a hat trick heading into the fall.

Da' Tara was the second Belmont Stakes winner in four years for trainer Nick Zito, who also stopped the Triple Crown bid of Smarty Jones with Birdstone in 2004. Birdstone came back and won the 1 1/4-mile Travers on a dark and stormy afternoon later that summer, but did not tune up in the Jim Dandy. Da' Tara, with more substance than Birdstone, needs to stay active.

"The Travers is a mile and a quarter," Zito said. "Da' Tara needs to be sharp for the Travers. I want him to win the Jim Dandy, but it's more important that he run a good race. Then the mile and a quarter will be right up his alley."

Da' Tara was slow to come around. Although he was a maiden winner in his third lifetime start, at Gulfstream Park in January, he subsequently was third in a weak first-level allowance race, then finished ninth of 12, some 23 1/2 lengths behind Big Brown, in the Florida Derby.

"When he ran against Big Brown the first time, he certainly was not up to that," Zito said. "But we were running out of options to see if he could make the Derby. I wanted to see if he could compete. He wasn't ready."

That day, though, jockey Joe Bravo told Zito he thought Da' Tara would be fine, but that he needed time to develop. Zito received similar feedback from Larry Melancon after Da' Tara finished fifth in the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs, and from John Velazquez after Da' Tara finished second in the Barbaro Stakes on the Preakness undercard at Pimlico.

That dovetailed with Zito's assessment. A student of pedigrees, Zito believed that Da' Tara, a son of Tiznow, would only get better with age and experience.

"He's a two-time Breeders' Cup Classic winner," Zito said of Tiznow. "I ran Da' Tara in the Belmont because I knew the distance would not be a problem."

The week of the Belmont, Zito repeatedly commented on how well Da' Tara was training. But he had no illusions about beating Big Brown and jockey Kent Desormeaux.

"I knew how steep the competition was," Zito said. "But he was training sensationally."

Zito instructed jockey Alan Garcia to head to the lead, believing the pace would be slow and that Da' Tara was one of the few in the race who would thrive at 1 1/2 miles.

"When he got the lead, I thought, 'This is great,' " Zito said. "But when Kent took the big horse outside turning into the backstretch, I thought to myself, 'Well, he'll step on the gas now. Maybe we can be second.'

"But then I saw the big horse not doing anything. I started jumping up and down. 'We've got a shot here.' I knew the other horses weren't in Big Brown's category. He pulled it off. Right or wrong?"

The Belmont victory capped a tumultuous first half of the year for Zito with his 3-year-olds. In February, three months before the Kentucky Derby, Zito seemingly had the deepest lineup of any trainer. But War Pass, last year's champion 2-year-old colt, failed to handle his two tries this year around two turns, then came up with a fracture that has kept him out of action since. Fierce Wind won the Tampa Bay Derby, but also went to the sidelines. Anak Nakal was well beaten in three Derby preps, then was seventh in the Derby. Cool Coal Man won the Fountain of Youth, but was trounced in both the Blue Grass (ninth) and the Derby (15th).

Now, Zito is flush with 3-year-olds ready to run. In addition to Da' Tara, he will send out Anak Nakal, who dead-heated for third in the Belmont, in the Jim Dandy. Cool Coal Man just won the Spend a Buck Stakes at Monmouth and could come back in the Haskell. Truth Rules has won three straight at Monmouth and will go for four in a row in the Haskell. Amped and Chris Got Even could race in the $80,000 Henry Walton, an overnight stakes on Sunday's undercard here. Stevil and Web Gem are entered in an allowance race on Saturday. And Coal Play is also here, preparing for an upcoming race.

"I keep telling my peeps, 'You've got to play the game until the ninth inning,' " Zito said. 'Like Yogi Berra says, 'It's never over 'til it's over.' "