04/29/2005 12:00AM

A study in contrasts looks to dominate Derby

Between them, trainers Todd Pletcher (above) and Nick Zito have eight of the 20 likely Derby starters.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - They have stalked each other all spring. From Florida to Kentucky, trainers Todd Pletcher and Nick Zito have dominated much of the Kentucky Derby prep races, often at the expense of each other.

Zito won the Fountain of Youth Stakes, Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, Tampa Bay Derby, and Sam Davis Stakes. Pletcher countered in the Lane's End Stakes, Blue Grass Stakes, and Lexington Stakes.

They have arrived at Churchill Downs with a total of eight of the potential 20 runners scheduled to compete next Saturday in the 131st Kentucky Derby. Zito has five, headed by the probable favorite, Bellamy Road, the Wood Memorial winner. Pletcher has three, including Bandini, the Blue Grass winner who will be the second or third choice, depending on whether bettors prefer him or Afleet Alex, the Arkansas Derby winner.

Based on the quality and quantity of their horses, these two trainers are accorded the best chance of winning this year's Derby. It has been their goal all spring. But that may be the only thing they have in common, because you could not find two more different people than Pletcher and Zito.

Pletcher, 37, is smartly attired and well-spoken, with nary a hair, subject, or verb misplaced. Prematurely gray, he has the look of a junior partner in a law firm, although that button-down image belies a dry sense of humor that he rarely reveals in public interviews.

"Everybody thinks he's so intense, so serious, but he's not difficult," said Pletcher's close friend, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. "He's a great people person, which is probably why he has so many owners."

Pletcher was born into the business, following in the footsteps of his father, trainer J.J. Pletcher. But at a young age he has achieved greater success than his father, winning the Eclipse Award as champion trainer in 2004.

"Since I was about 6 years old, I don't ever remember seriously thinking about wanting to do anything else," Pletcher said Friday morning at Churchill Downs.

Zito, 57, is racing's version of the comedian Norm Crosby, a lovably wacky native New Yorker who is prone to frequent malaprops ("We're not going to throw in the sponge") and pet phrases ("right or wrong?") while wearing his emotions on his sleeve, pantleg, and baseball cap. Zito proudly wraps himself in the flag, an example of the American dream.

"You're looking at the red, white, and blue here," Zito said. "In our country, you get a chance. Born in Brooklyn, raised in Queens, lived a mile from Aqueduct, and won the Kentucky Derby - and some other races," Zito said. "If it wasn't for racing, I don't know where I'd be. Like the old jockey agent Lenny Goodman used to tell me, 'Dummy up. You couldn't be a good bartender.'

"I'm very different than Todd. He's very professional, very calm, cool, and collected. I can been cool, collected, and calm, too, but on occasion I can't be."

The two are acquaintances but not close friends. "That's the nature of the business," Pletcher said. "You're competing every day."

Both have reached pinnacles of their sport. Zito has won the Kentucky Derby twice, in 1991 with Strike the Gold and 1994 with Go for Gin. He has never won the Eclipse Award but is a finalist this year for the Hall of Fame.

"To get in would be an incredible honor," Zito said. "It would show that a normal guy, from humble beginnings, can get into the Hall of Fame. You can start as a hotwalker, from the bottom, and get yourself in a situation like this."

Pletcher has an Eclipse Award but has yet to win the Derby. He has had nine starters over four years.

"I make no bones about the fact that of any race in the world, this is the one I'd like to win," Pletcher said. "But you'd probably get that from every trainer."

Although they traffic in the same circles in the spring with their 3-year-olds, and follow a circuit that takes them to Florida in the winter, Kentucky in the spring, and New York the rest of the year, they have decidedly different approaches to the art of training and to management of their stables.

Pletcher trains nearly 200 horses, currently spread among Kentucky, New York, and Delaware. At Churchill Downs, each morning on his computer, Pletcher produces a color-coded printout that tells stable hands what each horse is to do that morning. Pletcher is in frequent phone and e-mail contact with assistants at tracks where he maintains a string of horses.

"Obviously with the size of the stable and the number of locations, there's very little downtime," Pletcher said. "I've got to be focused every waking moment."

That is a trait shared by D. Wayne Lukas, for whom Pletcher worked as an assistant before going out on his own.

"He has a super work ethic. He's very smart. He sees things quickly. And he's got a good personality," Lukas said. "He also instills a lot of confidence in his clients, which is important. He's a detail person. He might have picked up some of that from us, but he's always been very well-organized."

"Todd's a great horseman," said Jose Cuevas, the celebrated exercise rider. "He gets up at 3:30 in the morning and never stops. He works 16 to 18 hours a day with the horses."

When it is suggested to Zito that he seems to rely on a combination of experience, street smarts, and intuitive feel, he agrees.

"I go by feel a lot," he said. "Not only is that plausible, it has the added benefit of being true." Zito instinctively reacts and adjusts his training when he arrives at the barn each morning.

To help focus on training at this year's Derby, Zito has had a barricade erected outside his barn to keep overzealous press members at bay. The four-foot-tall barrier made of PVC pipe - bearing signs saying "do not enter" and "keep out" - was put up last week after a photographer came down the shed row and took pictures without first getting permission. Concerned about the swarm of news media as the Derby neared, Zito had assistant Reynaldo Abreu build what has come to be known as "The Great Wall of Zito."

"I'm sure this fence next year will not be up," Zito said.

Zito has long been associated with the Derby because he won it twice in four years with his second and third starters in the race. He has not won it in 11 years.

"Eleven years. There's some trainers who haven't run in it in 11 years, and they're great trainers. I'm very thankful," Zito said. "It would be great to win, but one thing we're proud of is realizing what we've accomplished so far. To have five horses for five different owners shows the kind of organization we have. Getting to the big races, getting to this race, the Kentucky Derby, you can't ask anything more than that.

"The Derby's a great thing, but it's not everything. I've been more humbled by winning. I'm humbled by losing, too. If it works out, fine. If not, that's the way it is. I don't think a younger version of myself, in my 30's, would talk this way. Young guys are all macho and ego. The older you get, the more laid back you get. But there's still a fire burning in me. That's what counts.

"Todd's doing things that most people haven't done. He's a vital force. He's tough to get by. Maybe he fuels the fire, like Big Daddy, his predecessor," Zito said, referring to Lukas. "It's good in a way. It keeps me going."

Pletcher desires that first Derby win but says he also wants to maintain high standards year-round.

"It's important to excel year-round, not just in the big events, or the races leading up to the big events," Pletcher said. "I'm proud that we do well with 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, as well as older horses and turf horses. Now, yes, I want to win the Derby. But on May 8, if we haven't won the Derby, I'm going to fly to New York and try to win the Belmont meet with every horse I have."