10/02/2001 12:00AM

Zito recalls his most unforgettable day


ELMONT, N.Y. - In a span of 33 minutes last October, trainer Nick Zito watched an okay autumn afternoon at Belmont Park become unforgettable.

The first five horses Zito sent out on Belmont's Breeders' Cup Preview Day card last Oct. 14 all finished in the money, including a second- and third-place finish in the Grade 1 Frizette. Then came the day's showcase Grade 1 events, the Champagne and the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

At 5:13 p.m., the lightly raced juvenile A P Valentine busted through a narrow opening along the rail to get up and win the $500,000 Champagne against a field that included stakes winners Point Given, Yonaguska, and City Zip.

At 5:46 p.m., the late-developing Albert the Great romped to a front-running, six-length victory in the

$1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup. His final time of 1:59.24 was the fastest 1 1/4 miles run by a 3-year-old in New York.

"I would say it ranks up there with the Derbies, and probably the week we had in Baltimore [in 1995] when we won the [Pimlico] Special, Preakness, and Sir Barton,'' said Zito, who won the Kentucky Derby in 1991 with Strike the Gold and 1994 with Go for Gin. "But for me, being a New Yorker, it was one of the great days of racing in my life.''

Zito hopes to relive some of that magic in Saturday's Breeders' Cup Preview Day when he will send out both Albert the Great and A P Valentine in the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup.

The Gold Cup is a key race for both horses as they try to establish themselves as contenders for the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic on Oct. 27.

Neither has won a Grade 1 race since last October, although Albert the Great has come tantalizingly close four times while winning three other graded events.

In nine races since the Champagne, A P Valentine has one win - in an optional claiming race at Hialeah - and two seconds. Granted, he was second in the Preakness and Belmont, but he never threatened Point Given in either race.

For a horse that Zito said could be the best horse he ever trained, A P Valentine has failed to live up to expectations.

"Sure he didn't come up to his expectations, we know that," Zito said. "But there are a lot of reasons for that. Was I wrong in the assessment? I don't think so. Was I wrong the way it turned out? Of course. Am I that wrong? I don't think so. Right or wrong?"

A P Valentine bucked shins in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile and seemed to be playing catch-up through the spring. He made it to the Triple Crown in an unorthodox manner and finished a troubled seventh in the Kentucky Derby. While that was the most frustrating race for Zito, the most disappointing race was the Jim Dandy when A P Valentine finished fourth. Most recently, he finished fourth in the Travers, but earned a lifetime best Beyer Speed Figure of 109.

With a stallion career waiting for him next year - Coolmore Stud purchased his breeding rights from Rick Pitino for $15 million before last year's Breeders' Cup - the Gold Cup could be A P Valentine's last stand.

"If he doesn't run a bang-up race then that's it, he's retired," Zito said.

Albert the Great's future has not yet been finalized. On Saturday, he'll try to join the likes of Kelso, Nashua, Shuvee, Slew o' Gold, and Skip Away as back-to-back winners of the Gold Cup. Albert is 6 for 8 at Belmont and has been "a gem of consistency," Zito said.

He will have a new rider, Gary Stevens, who won this race in 1992 with Pleasant Tap, beating Strike the Gold and A P Indy, the sire of A P Valentine.

"I think he's going to get better these next two races," Zito said of Albert the Great. "He likes Belmont in the fall."

Just like his trainer.