05/23/2007 12:00AM

Sun King still out for elusive Grade 1 win

Ian Lozada/Horsephotos
Sun King, with Corey Nakatani up, got bounced around in the Westchester.

ELMONT, N.Y. - Trainer Nick Zito has won the Kentucky Derby twice, a Preakness, a Belmont Stakes, and a Travers. And while Strike the Gold, Go for Gin, Louis Quatorze, and Birdstone helped Zito get to the Hall of Fame, Zito's favorite horse is one whose biggest accomplishment is winning the Pennsylvania Derby.

Mention the name Sun King to Zito, and he beams like a proud papa. Though the horse has yet to win a Grade 1 race - he is 0 for 12 in such events - Zito marvels over the consistency and durability the horse has displayed in a 23-race career in which he has competed in 17 graded stakes and banked $2 million.

"I may have a Triple Crown horse some day, a Derby winner again, and a Belmont winner again," Zito said Wednesday morning, "but I don't think I'll ever have a horse like Sun King."

Sun King, a 5-year-old son of Charismatic, has won 6 of his 23 starts. He has won three stakes and finished in the money seven times in Grade 1 races. At 2, Sun King was third in the Champagne and Breeders' Cup Juvenile. At 3, he won the Tampa Bay Derby and Leonard Richards - both Grade 3 stakes - and the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby while running second in the Haskell and third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Last year, Sun King lost two of the most prestigious races on this circuit by inches. In the Metropolitan Handicap, Sun King fell a head short to Silver Train. Ten weeks later at Saratoga, he lost the Grade 1 Whitney by a nose to the eventual Horse of the Year, Invasor.

"Those are real Grade 1's - the Met, the Whitney, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile," Zito said. "Not only do you get the money, but you get the status. I may preach the gospel and tell the whole world how good a stud he's going to be, but it's easier when you have it on paper."

Sun King will try once again to win a Grade 1 race when he runs in Monday's $600,000 Met Mile here. Though the race lost two graded stakes winners on Wednesday, it is still expected to have a deep field of nine led by Grade 1 winners Silver Wagon, Latent Heat, and Lawyer Ron. Others pointing to the race include Corinthian, Half Ours, Political Force, and Silent Name.

On Wednesday, trainer Angel Penna said Chatain, winner of the Hal's Hope, burned both hind heels in a workout and will miss the race. Also, Utopia, winner of the Westchester Handicap here on opening day, is suffering from a leg infection that forced his connections to put him on antibiotics.

Sun King finished 1 1/2 lengths behind Utopia in the Westchester, a race in which he got bumped at the start and was bumped several more times by Political Force in the stretch. Political Force, who finished a half-length ahead of Sun King, was disqualified from second and placed third while Sun King was moved to second.

"He got banged around like a pingpong ball," Zito said.

The Westchester was Sun King's first race since he finished 10th in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. It was a surprisingly bad performance for a horse who had been in such good form leading up to that race.

"His only bad races have been at Churchill Downs," Zito said. "He ran [15th] in the Derby, he ran [10th] in the Breeders' Cup. I don't know why he won't run on that track, but he trains unbelievable on it. For the Commonwealth last year, he trained at Churchill."

Sun King's only win in 2006 came in the Grade 2 Commonwealth, a race in which he rallied from last, something that was not easily done over Keeneland's conventional dirt surface. That race set him up well for a run at the Met Mile, a race in which his late run fell just short to Silver Train.

Zito said that in last year's Met Mile, Sun King's jockey, Rafael Bejarano, "rode a good race - he just for a split second had to hesitate. That could have been it."

"The Whitney, Invasor had post 2 and we had post 9. Maybe if that had been reversed, maybe that would have been a nose again. Unfortunately, that's racing. When they say a nose is a mile, I know what they mean."

It is easy to speculate that had Sun King won either the Met Mile or the Whitney, he would have been retired by now. But his owner, Tracy Farmer, said that would not be the case.

"I believe we need to run the horses longer," Farmer said. "I enjoy the racing. I enjoy the fans, the competition of it. I know you make more money on the sire end of it, but I think we owe it to the fans to race good horses. If he would have won a Grade 1, he'd still be running."