06/09/2001 12:00AM

Zito still outside this winner's circle


ELMONT, N.Y. - Nick Zito remains the bridesmaid of the Belmont Stakes.

For the fifth time since 1990, a Zito-trained horse finished second in the Belmont. This time it was A P Valentine, who finished 12 1/4 lengths behind Point Given in Saturday's 133rd renewal at Belmont Park.

A P Valentine joins Thirty Six Red (1990), Strike the Gold (1991), Go for Gin (1994), and Star Standard (1995) as Zito trainees who finished second in the third leg of the Triple Crown. Zito has started 11 horses in the Belmont.

"Like Woody, only second," said Zito, referring to the legendary Woody Stephens, who won a record five consecutive Belmonts from 1982-86. "I don't know why the Belmont is so hard for us to win. I guess we got to be grateful and thank the great creator up there that I have horses every year to run in these types of races."

Zito was more relieved than disappointed that A P Valentine finished second. After all, he finished second to the monster that is Point Given. A P Valentine also finished second to Point Given in the Preakness.

"He's a tremendous horse, when you look at him he's so big and so fluid, he's the real deal," Zito said. "I'm grateful that we beat him as a 2-year-old [in the Champagne] and grateful that we ran this way. We're not going to give up. Me, my jock, and my horse ain't giving up. We're going to keep trying to beat this horse and one day we'll turn the tables. We always do."

A P Valentine was inside of Point Given entering the first turn, but jockey Victory Espinoza said he wasn't comfortable in that position. Espinoza took A P Valentine back into fifth position. He followed Point Given down the backside and was just off his flank entering the far turn. But as Point Given's gigantic strides drew him clear, Espinoza just tried to maintain second place.

"I tried to follow him as much as I can," Espinoza said. "At the three-eighths pole he was right in front of me. After another sixteenth I looked up and he was so far in front and he opened it up more. I had to ride as hard as I can to run second."

Zito said he was proud of A P Valentine's courage to finish second and looked for another chance at Point Given in the $1 million Travers Stakes on Aug. 25 at Saratoga.

"He dug in there, he could have quit," Zito said. "He never threw in the towel, which I knew he wouldn't. We'll just work as hard as we can for the Travers and who knows maybe we'll get a chance to prepare him the correct way."