05/20/2001 11:00PM

Zito covets Belmont for A P Valentine

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BALTIMORE - Nick Zito no longer has to justify running A P Valentine in the Triple Crown series. The horse vindicated himself and Zito on Saturday by running a gritty second to Point Given in the 126th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico.

Now, A P Valentine returns to his home track of Belmont Park - where he is 2 for 2, including a victory over Point Given in last fall's Grade 1 Champagne Stakes - for the Belmont Stakes on June 9.

As a New Yorker, Zito covets the Belmont trophy as much as any prize in racing. It has eluded him so far. In the 1990's, he started nine horses in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont and finished second four times.

"It would be terrific to win that Belmont Stakes," said Zito, who finished third in 1984 with his first Belmont starter, Morning Bob. "No one's tried harder than we did in the Belmont in the 1990's."

Zito ran some of his best horses in the Belmont, including Kentucky Derby winners Strike the Gold and Go for Gin and Preakness winner Louis Quatorze.

Last year, after A P Valentine won the Champagne, Zito said he could very well be the best horse he has ever trained. But ever since the Champagne, A P Valentine, a son of 1992 Belmont winner A P Indy, failed to live up to that billing.

He finished last as the favorite in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, a race from which he emerged with bucked shins. He finished third in a Feb. 17 allowance race at Gulfstream Park, where his shins flared up again.

A P Valentine won an allowance race against modest horses at Hialeah - setting a track record for 1 1/16 miles - before running poorly in the Blue Grass. Despite all that, Zito had confidence in his colt going into the Kentucky Derby, where he finished seventh after being stopped cold twice on the backstretch.

"I'm not proud of the job I've done with this horse, preparing him for the Triple Crown," said Zito, referring to the unorthodox route he took to the series. "He had those shins. They flared up again after that Feb. 17 race, and I had to back off a little bit. I got an allowance race. I went to the Blue Grass. That didn't work. We went to the Kentucky Derby. We looked like we were going to be a factor, and we got the most horrendous ride you could possibly think of."

Zito changed riders from Corey Nakatani to Victor Espinoza, who became available when he was fired off Congaree following a third in the Kentucky Derby. Espinoza had A P Valentine in sixth position early in the Preakness, and he was inside of Point Given down the backside.

A P Valentine raced between horses from the middle of the backstretch until the top of the lane. He finally got clear, and with Espinoza flailing away, he was able to get up for second, a neck in front of Congaree.

"I thought we were in great position down the backside," Zito said. "I thought we had just as much gait as Point Given. Victor was trying to go, and you knew Gary wasn't going to let him out. Nothing opened up right or left. But I was so grateful and proud the way he dug in for second."

A P Valentine was vanned to Belmont Park on Sunday and will return to the track later this week to begin training for the Belmont.

"What we need is three good weeks, and we'll give [Point Given] a run for his money," Zito said.