06/07/2008 12:00AM

Zito calls 'em the way he sees them


ELMONT, N.Y. - Nick Zito wasn't making any predictions. It was 8 o'clock on the morning of the Belmont Stakes and he had a couple other things on his mind, like the broken ankle of assistant Heather Stark, who had just been carted off to the hospital after taking a tumble with a goofball 2-year-old on the main track.

"Can you believe it? On Belmont Day!" Zito said, mixing sympathy with a heavy dose of trainer's angst. "It was getting late. I told her she didn't need to take that one to the track, to just tack walk. But she wanted to get it done. Poor kid. She was going to be walking over with Anak Nakal."

This in itself should not harken the end of the world. The chances that Zito, Stark, and the rest of the Anak Nakal team would hand Big Brown the first defeat in his career were slim on paper, and 30-1 on the morning line. Still, to leave Zito out of a Belmont exotic is usually a bad move. Before Saturday, he had run 18 horses in the third leg of the Triple Crown, and 11 of them finished fourth or better - an incredible six running second, including Kentucky Derby winners Strike the Gold and Go for Gin.

With Da' Tara, another longshot, and Anak Nakal in Saturday's running, Zito passed Wayne Lukas as the trainer with the most Belmont starters. Of those 18, Zito had only one winner, but what a winner it was. Marylou Whitney's Birdstone, ridden by Edgar Prado, brought the Smarty Jones Triple Crown crashing down on June 5, 2004, with a one-length upset at odds of 36-1 that had everyone in the winner's camp profusely apologizing for spoiling the party.

Somehow, horse racing recovered, only to be banged around again at a whole different level in 2006 with Barbaro's eventually catastrophic injury in the Preakness, and then again this spring when Eight Belles was fatally injured in the Kentucky Derby. Zito, a staunch advocate for horse welfare beyond their racing years, has been training horses long enough to place such events in rational perspective. But he has felt the sting of bad publicity in the bread-and-butter world of client acquisition.

"Are the critics trying to take everything that this game has accomplished and throw it in the river?" Zito said. "Right now, horse racing is a hard sell. You take a guy, a very wealthy guy, who looks at the game and says he'd rather just watch his daughter ride her horses. I'm not saying the reason is Eight Belles. But that's what a lot of people see. They don't get a chance to see the beautiful game we know."

Beautiful, Zito insists, but troubled, with way too many issues floating around without clear paths to resolution. For starters, if Zito wrote the rules, he would hit veterinarians with the same fines and suspensions levied upon trainers for medication violations.

"I've got a lot of good friends among veterinarians," Zito said. "But we need them to step up and be held accountable alongside the other groups in the game. They have to be the educators, and they have to take their share of responsibility. If a trainer is suspended for 30 days, suspend his vet for 30 and see how quick that starts to make a difference."

Zito is already trying to practice an aspect of what he preaches, holding veterinarians to certain standards. In a reaction to the stand of the American Association of Equine Practitioners in opposition to proposed federal legislation that would protect horses from slaughter, Zito requires any vet working in his stable to denounce the AAEP position.

"I write it down and they gotta sign it," Zito said. " 'Even though I belong to the AAEP, I don't believe in horse slaughter.' "

A noble experiment, and every little bit of pressure helps. Zito has been pounding away at the horse slaughter business nearly every time he gets some kind of forum. Chances were remote that he would get much of a hearing after the Belmont, with his two longshots tackling Big Brown. But the memory of Birdstone was hard to ignore.

"It's a mile and a half - you know what I mean?" Zito said, and the entire class nodded. "People don't understand, and it's getting a little boring to keep saying it. But it's a mile and a half!

"Still, there's no question, for anybody to beat Big Brown, something has to happen," he went on. "That's what happened with Birdstone. Smarty Jones had to go a little too fast in the middle of the race, and Birdstone just kept getting those eighths, steady. That'd be the key with a horse like Anak Nakal - just keep those eighths going and maybe something wild will happen."

And if that wild thing does happen? Does Zito have an apology speech prepared for destroying another Triple Crown dream?

"I won't feel bad this time if should some miracle happen again," Zito said. "We're still New York, and we've paid our dues. I may even get a pass, if you know what I mean."

Got it, Nick. Compared to the fairytale bunch surrounding Smarty Jones, the Big Brown team comes off about as warm and fuzzy as Halliburton.

"On the other hand, I am a fan, and I understand how it could help our sport," Zito added. "It brings a lot of buzz, the Triple Crown. And whether Big Brown wins or not, he's still a great horse."