05/21/2004 12:00AM

Zito covets Belmont win

Trainer Nick Zito is 0 for 11 in Belmont Stakes. He's not done trying.

Kentucky is his adopted home state, but Nick Zito is still New York through and through. He was born there, raised there, and is based there for most of the year. His success in the Kentucky Derby sated one long-held desire, but Zito still longs to win the biggest race in New York, the Belmont Stakes.

His quest has been a particularly trying one. Zito has finished second in the Belmont five times. "Honest, that is frustration," Zito said.

And he is being tested again this year, because the colt who likely gives him his best chance of winning the Belmont is still questionable to make the race.

The Cliff's Edge returned to training this week after missing last week's Preakness Stakes with a bruised right front foot. He lost six days of training. If The Cliff's Edge can train strongly and without interruption, Zito should be able to get a work into him this coming week, and in turn have him ready for the June 5 Belmont, in which Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones will attempt to win the Triple Crown.

"Cliff had worked the previous Sunday, and he was ready to run on Saturday, so if we do get to breeze him, it should be no problem," Zito said. However, he cautioned, "I'm not doing anything stupid. We're making progress, but it might be slow progress.

"Remember one thing," Zito added, "you never run out of horse races for a horse like this. He has to be 100 percent. There's no 75, no 25. It's 100 percent or zero with The Cliff's Edge. If you camouflage something here, you are asking for trouble."

In addition to The Cliff's Edge, Zito is also pointing Birdstone and Royal Assault to the Belmont.

Birdstone, who gave Zito a record fourth victory in the Champagne Stakes last year, finished eighth in the Derby. "We're going to proceed like we're going," said Zito, who said owner Marylou Whitney has told him not to press if he thinks waiting would be beneficial. "She says her horses are more important than a trophy," Zito said.

Royal Assault won last week's Sir Barton Stakes on the Preakness undercard. He was fifth in the Wood Memorial in his previous start.

"It was a good prep, he's a nice horse, and he's got the pedigree," said Zito. Royal Assault is by distance sire Kris S., who is also the sire of Rock Hard Ten.

Zito's first Belmont starter was Morning Bob, who finished third in 1984. From 1990 through 2001, Zito finished second in five of 12 Belmonts. Thirty Six Red finished a distant second to Irish invader Go and Go in 1990. Strike the Gold, Zito's first Derby winner, fell a head short of catching Hansel in the 1991 Belmont. Go for Gin, Zito's second Derby winner, was second to Tabasco Cat in 1994, and then Star Standard finished second to Thunder Gulch in 1995. Zito most recently finished second, albeit a distant second, to Point Given with

A P Valentine in the 2001 Belmont. He did not have a Belmont starter in 2002 or 2003.

The next two weeks will be filled with anticipation for Zito. On Tuesday, he will find out if he is the latest trainer named to the Hall of Fame. Zito is an underdog to Shug McGaughey - John Veitch is the other finalist among trainers - but Zito said it was "very humbling" to be placed on the ballot.

"It's great to be associated with Shug," Zito said.

Zito has been a curious omission from the ballot in past years, something that gnawed at him. Zito said he just wanted a fair shot. Last year, Zito lashed out, saying, "Forget getting in. They won't even put me on the ballot. My name should be on there.

"You're not allowed to see the vote for the Hall of Fame," he said. "This is not done in some kosher environment. There's no rabbinical stamp."

This year, for the first time, the Hall of Fame will have an accounting firm tally the ballots. As in year's past, however, vote totals will not be disclosed. According to Ed Bowen, the chairman of the Hall of Fame nominating committee, vote totals are not released because, "two out of three will be disappointed, but we see no reason to create a situation whereby anyone is embarrassed."

In other Belmont developments on Friday:

* Smarty Jones galloped 1 1/2 miles at Philadelphia Park. His trainer, John Servis, said he might extend the length of Smarty Jones's gallops next week. "I don't want him going 1 1/2 miles and being too sharp," Servis said. Smarty Jones is likely to have one workout in preparation for the Belmont. It will probably be Friday or Saturday at Philadelphia Park, according to Servis, who said Smarty Jones will probably not be sent by van to Belmont Park until the day before the race.

* Rock Hard Ten and Eddington, who finished second and third, respectively, in the Preakness, both galloped 1 1/2 miles at Belmont.

- additional reporting by David Grening

Zito in the Belmont Stakes

2001A P Valentine5.902
1999Stephen Got Even9.305
1996Saratoga Dandy6.10*11
1996Louis Quatzore6.10*4
1995Star Standard6.302
1994Go For Gin1.502
1991Strike the Gold2.202
1990Thirty Six Red3.702
1984Morning Bob6.803

* - coupled entry