04/29/2005 12:00AM

Using the past to predict Zito's Derby fate


PHOENIX - It's quite possible trainer Nick Zito will send out a quarter of the starting field when they bounce out of the gate in next Saturday's Kentucky Derby. This embarrassment of riches isn't unprecedented, but it doesn't happen often.

Best of all for Zito, it seems that at least four of his runners definitely deserve to be in the starting lineup. You could hem and haw about the prospects for Andromeda's Hero, but surely there have been slower horses who have run in the Derby.

Bellamy Road looms the favorite. Sun King was the favorite until his dull Blue Grass run, but certainly has credentials. High Fly has only lost once and somehow seems to have been lost in the shuffle. Noble Causeway looks very much like Real Quiet II with his progression and strong finish in the Florida Derby.

Of course, Zito, along with Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas, has been mentioned in the same breath as the Derby ever since his two wins in the race, with Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go for Gin in 1994. Ever since then, any Zito 2-year-old who can put one foot in front of another has been tabbed a potential Derby horse. Sometimes it has been to the detriment of the horse, as he was sent on the Derby trail and either wasn't good enough or got hurt on the way (Wondertross, Greenwood Lake, Silent Fred, Eurosilver, and Acceptable, to name a few).

Zito's first Derby starter was Thirty Six Red (1990). He won the Gotham and Wood in impressive fashion, but by the time he got to Churchill, he was spent. Zito learned a lot from Thirty Six Red - he has made it a point ever since to take it a bit easier on his horses in the winter and spring leading up to the Derby. While the light campaign for Bellamy Road bucks history (just two preps), it coincides with Zito's current train of thought, though his runners usually build to a peak instead of running amok as Bellamy Road did.

That's the way both Strike the Gold and Go for Gin went into their Derbies. Strike the Gold was third and second in a couple of allowance races in the winter, then second in the Florida Derby before winning the Blue Grass. The upward form cycle is obvious.

Go for Gin had a slightly different campaign. He won the Preview (now the Holy Bull), was second in the Fountain of Youth, then ran a troubled fourth in the Florida Derby. He bounced back, however, when he ran on to be a strong second in the Wood, an effort that had him ready to peak in the Derby.

Zito had others who, on paper, looked as though they belonged, but in retrospect may have been in too deep. Jack Flash had been second in the Blue Grass and Adonis had won the Wood, but neither was any factor on Derby Day. Louis Quatorze hadn't shown much but then popped up to win the Blue Grass. He would later validate his quality with a record-setting win in the Preakness, but his overall prior form wasn't much, and he ran like it in the Derby. Suave Prospect, who, like Bellamy Road and High Fly, was not an original Zito trainee, was a consistent horse, but there were questions about his ability to handle 10 furlongs, concerns which were confirmed when he faded in the Derby.

Halory Hunter won the Blue Grass in grand fashion and ran on well to be fourth behind Real Quiet, beaten less than three lengths. He broke a bone preparing for the Preakness and never raced again. Stephen Got Even looked super winning the Jim Beam and was something of a wise-guy horse in the Derby. He finished 14th and was no factor. The Cliff's Edge likewise fit the Strike the Gold profile - he was third in the Florida Derby then won the Blue Grass - but on Derby Day he didn't appear to like the track, and on top of that lost two of his shoes. Considering all that, it's to his credit that he kept on to be fifth.

Maybe the most interesting aspect to Zito and his Derby prospects this year has to do with Sun King. While the 10 examples of Zito's horses cited above all went into the Derby off some good races, the same cannot be said of Zito's four other starters.

Diligence, Shammy Davis, A P Valentine, and Birdstone all went into the Derby off poor outings. Not one of them was a player on Derby Day - Diligence finished 12th in '96, Shammy Davis ninth in '97, A P Valentine seventh in 2001, and Birdstone eighth in 2004. Of that group, Zito's enthusiasm would pay off only with Birdstone, who would later win the Belmont and Travers. But Diligence didn't win again until nearly a year to the day, Shammy Davis's next win would be in a claimer two years later, and A P Valentine wouldn't win again. All four went into the Derby off poor outings - does that mean Sun King is doomed to a similar fate?