08/07/2005 11:00PM

Zito enters the Hall of Fame

Calling himself "the luckiest man alive," trainer Nick Zito accepts racing's highest award.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Calling himself "the luckiest man alive," trainer Nick Zito delighted a fawning, overflow audience at Monday's Hall of Fame induction ceremonies with an acceptance speech that displayed Zito's ready wit and his heartfelt appreciation for racing and all that it has brought him, including being the newest member of the sport's most august body.

"It's a real honor to be with them," Zito said after citing previous inductees who were in the audience, such as Allen Jerkens and Shug McGaughey, for giving him "five minutes a day, because it meant so much."

"I get goose bumps looking at them," Zito said.

Zito, 57, was the marquee inductee this year, and his popularity resulted in a packed lower bowl and a standing-room-only crowd in the upstairs mezzanine of the Humphrey S. Finney Sales Pavilion, where the ceremonies were held. Monday's ceremony also was popular with the steeplechase set, as three of its greats - jockey Tommy Walsh, trainer Sid Watters, and five-time champion Lonesome Glory - also were inducted.

Zito was introduced by his son, Alex, and by John Hettinger, an owner who has been with Zito for 23 years. Hettinger called Zito "an aggressive workaholic," and said the two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer is "demanding, but has a very, very big heart."

"He doesn't look up to a king, or down on a hot walker," Hettinger said. "And he's something of a philosopher," a comment that drew a chuckle from the crowd. Hettinger then told a story of how he once described a person to Zito as "conservative." Zito cut Hettinger off. "When I was a little boy," Zito said, according to Hettinger, "my father told me, 'You know what conservative means? It means cheap.' "

Zito said he first went to the track with his father, but was too young to get inside.

"A security guard watched me," Zito said.

"I jumped over the fence. It was a Saturday at Aqueduct, and they had so many people, they couldn't catch me. I never lost that feeling. Not jumping over the fence, but watching great horses run."

Zito said "you can't get into the Hall of Fame by yourself," then set about naming dozens of people who helped him get there, including owners, assistants, blacksmiths, veterinarians, grooms, and exercise riders, some of whom are no longer associated with him.

"People say it about baseball and football and basketball, but it's true for me. If it wasn't for racing, I don't know where I'd be," Zito said.

Walsh, 65, is fifth on the all-time list for wins by a steeplechase jockey, and he won the Grand National Steeplechase five times. He was introduced by Lenny Hale, a veteran racing official, who called steeplechase racing a great introduction to the sport, because of its appeal to families.

Walsh's brief acceptance speech largely consisted of telling a self-deprecating story of when he rode a race for his uncle, trainer Mickey Walsh. Walsh said he fell at a fence, but had such a large lead he was able to remount and still win.

"That was something, huh?" Walsh said he told his uncle.

"If you hadn't crashed into that fence, you wouldn't have fallen," Walsh said his uncle replied.

Watters, 88, trained top horses on both the flat and over the jumps, including Hoist the Flag and Shadow Brook. Watters was too ill to attend Monday's ceremonies.

"His doctor thinks he would be confused and agitated if he came here today," said Watters's son, Eric, who accepted on his behalf.

"My father was once asked what his favorite thing was to waste money on," Eric Watters said. "His answer: buying horses."

Watters was introduced by Jane Forbes Clark, the chairman of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, whose family owned horses trained by Watters.

Clark said Watters had "unwavering respect for all his horses," and said he "embodies the Hall of Fame. He has character, integrity, sportsmanship, and a brilliant career."

Lonesome Glory's award was accepted by Sally Jeffords Radcliffe, whose late parents campaigned Lonesome Glory, and trainer Bruce Miller.

"I wish my mother could be here today," Radcliffe said of Kay Jeffords. "She so loved a party, and anything to do with her beloved Lonesome."

Lonesome Glory's award was presented by Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard, who is the president of the National Steeplechase Association.

"I rode for Sid Watters, rode against Tommy Walsh, and I tried many times, usually unsuccessfully, to beat Lonesome Glory, so I can vouch for the worthiness of all of them," Sheppard said.

Preceding the acceptance speeches, and in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Hall of Fame, John Von Stade, the president of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, introduced all the previous Hall of Fame members who were in attendance, and had them form a semi-circle in front of the podium. Von Stade asked the crowd to hold its applause until all were introduced, but when Von Stade called out the name of Pat Day, the crowd understandably burst into a spontaneous cheer for the rider who had announced his retirement last week.

Day was joined by fellow riders Joe Aitcheson Jr., Braulio Baeza, Jerry Bailey, John Rotz, Gary Stevens, Ron Turcotte, Bobby Ussery, Jorge Velasquez, and Manny Ycaza, and trainers LeRoy Jolley, Jerkens, T.J. Kelly, D. Wayne Lukas, McGaughey, Bill Mott, Scotty Schulhofer, Sheppard, and Frank Whiteley Jr.

Entertainer David Cassidy, who has been a longtime owner and breeder, was the keynote speaker. Ed Bowen, the chairman of the Hall of Fame Committee, said Cassidy as a teen had "a larger fan club than Elvis or the Beatles."

"Whether it's larger than Nick Zito's, I'm not sure," Bowen said.

Cassidy said that wherever he has worked, his contract has always stated he gets a week off from Aug. 7-14, so he can attend Saratoga. Cassidy's love of racing also came through in his humorous remarks.

Addressing his family, Cassidy said, "I'm sorry I gave up the college fund, son, but I understand she's training very well."