06/17/2010 11:00PM

Zito: Small Jackson Bend owns a big heart

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - With every race, trainer Nick Zito's admiration for Jackson Bend grows.

"He's a gallant warrior," said Zito, who estimates Jackson Bend is only about 15 hands tall. "I'm privileged to have a horse like this that tries that hard."

The diminutive but gutsy Jackson Bend has tackled the cream of the 3-year-old division this season. The Grade 3, $200,000 Pegasus Stakes on Saturday at Monmouth Park could be his chance to finally shine.

In five races this year, Jackson Bend has three seconds and a third. He aims for his first win of the campaign in the 1 1/16-mile Pegasus against five rivals.

Jackson Bend finished second to Eskendereya in both the Fountain of Youth and Wood Memorial. After a trouble-filled 12th in the Kentucky Derby, Jackson Bend rebounded two weeks later to get third in Preakness, only three-quarters of a length behind winner Lookin At Lucky.

"Dave Feldman wrote the book 'Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda.' That fits Jackson perfectly," Zito said. "To be that small, and to be that good, is pretty good. He is put together really well."

Like Jackson Bend, Schoolyard Dreams last ran in the Preakness. Trainer Derek Ryan was confident the near-miss loser of the Tampa Bay Derby would run a big race at Pimlico. Schoolyard Dreams didn't deliver, finishing ninth.

Ryan now has his eye on the premier event of the meet, the Grade 1, $1 million Haskell Invitational on Aug. 1. Schoolyard Dreams needs a Pegasus win to get there.

"If we don't win, we'll know where we're going for the rest of the summer," Ryan said. "He has to win to go to the Haskell. If not, we'll go in some second-tier direction."

Last time out, Soaring Empire ran fourth to Fly Down and Drosselmeyer in the Dwyer at Belmont. Those two came back to reverse that finish in the Belmont Stakes, making the Dwyer a key race.

Soaring Empire has been training sensationally at Monmouth with bullet works in his last two breezes.

"I'm confident that my horse is training superior," said trainer Cam Gambolati. "Is he good enough? I don't know. We'll find out."

Withers winner Afleet Again, Afleet Express, and Nacho Friend complete the field.