08/23/2004 11:00PM

Zito has three owners with one goal

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"All three horses definitely belong in the Travers. They have good credentials - they're all solid 3-year-olds. It's good for our stable to have that shot and have that good a chance." - Trainer Nick Zito

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - As the trainer of a public stable whose emphasis is on 3-year-olds, Nick Zito believes it's his job to get as many horses as possible to races like Saturday's $1 million Travers.

Since he will saddle three of the seven runners expected to start in the 135th Travers, it would appear that Zito has done his job quite well this year.

But in getting Birdstone, Sir Shackleton, and The Cliff's Edge to this meet's premier event, Zito has had to juggle the egos, emotions, and expectations of three different owners.

Zito's job is made somewhat easier by the fact that Marylou Whitney, the owner of Belmont Stakes winner Birdstone, and Tracy Farmer, the owner of West Virginia Derby winner Sir Shackleton, are great friends. Both own breeding farms in Kentucky and have sat together when their horses competed against each other in major events such as the 2003 Kentucky Oaks and this year's Belmont.

Robert LaPenta, owner of The Cliff's Edge, is a New York city businessman. He only recently got involved in the sport and has already had success on the track and pinhooking horses at auction. Earlier this year, he sold a 2-year-old at auction for $4.5 million and won the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes.

While all three owners obviously want to win the Travers, Zito believes he has done his job by getting them to the starting gate.

"What would they want me to do, not give them a chance?" Zito said on a beautiful Tuesday morning on the Saratoga backstretch. "Let's say our stable wins and two of them lose. Do the two losers get mad at me? No, I don't think I train for that type of people. If they're competitive, they want to win because that's their nature. But is their nature any other than wanting to be in that race?

"This is a public stable," Zito added. "First comes the job of a trainer; if he's lucky enough and blessed, he has to go forward and try to do these things. It's more than a decade that we've been preaching the 3-year-old gospel. People know when they come in this barn they want a chance to run in the Derby, the Preakness, the Belmont Stakes, and the Travers. That's what we're going to keep doing."

Zito, 56, has won two Kentucky Derbies, a Preakness, and, earlier this year, his first Belmont. He is 0 for 11 in the Travers, having come within a nose of winning it with Albert the Great in 2000.

Zito's situation entering the Travers isn't unlike what he dealt with during the winter and spring, when he was trying to get Birdstone, The Cliff's Edge, and Eurosilver to the Kentucky Derby. The Cliff's Edge was considered the third-stringer, but he wound up winning the Blue Grass and was made the morning-line favorite for the Derby, a race in which he threw two front shoes and finished fifth. Birdstone suffered a setback when he missed the Blue Grass due to illness and finished eighth in the Derby. Eurosilver caught a virus and never made it to the Derby. That horse has since been taken away from Zito.

In getting these three horses to the Travers, Zito has had to deal with myriad issues. Birdstone is a small horse who does better with time between races. He enters the Travers off an 84-day layoff, or since he upset Smarty Jones in the Belmont.

Three days before the Preakness, The Cliff's Edge was found to have a deep-seated foot bruise that forced him out of that race and the Belmont. He has since come back to run second in the Dwyer and Jim Dandy. The Cliff's Edge ran in the Jim Dandy with a skin disease, which Zito believes may have been caused by all the shipping the horse has done. Zito said The Cliff's Edge no longer has the skin disease.

Sir Shackleton didn't debut until February, but looks to be an improving 3-year-old. He was beaten 14 3/4 lengths in the Preakness, but Zito believes the race is better than it looks, considering Smarty Jones won that race by 11 1/2 lengths. Sir Shackleton finished third in the Dwyer, and won the West Virginia Derby in his last start.

"All three horses definitely belong in the Travers," Zito said. "They have good credentials - they're all solid 3-year-olds. It's good for our stable to have that shot and have that good a chance."

For the owners' part, they're also hoping Zito is able to get his first Travers. The Whitney family has won three Travers, the last with Chompion in 1968.

"If I don't win the Travers, I hope the Farmers do," said Whitney, referring to Tracy and his wife, Carol. "There's a camaraderie among people who have horse farms, and we feel for each other in the breeding business."

Farmer feels the same way, though his passion for winning the Travers is fueled by the narrow loss Albert the Great suffered to Unshaded in this race in 2000. Still, Farmer said, if he can't win it, he'd like to see Birdstone win.

"Marylou epitomizes our sport and what we're all about," Farmer said. "We have the same desires, love for the horses; unfortunately, we have to run against each other."

LaPenta said he and Zito discussed the possibility of Zito running several horses in major races before LaPenta agreed to become his client. LaPenta said he has only a casual relationship with Whitney and Farmer.

"I told him unless he's prepared to have one owner, it's something we're all going to have to live with," LaPenta said. "Nick's a great trainer. I have confidence in him - he wouldn't do anything he didn't think wasn't right for the horses. Nick thinks of the horses first and the owners second. I don't think there's any real conflict. Ultimately it comes down to 'Let the best horse win.' "