06/08/2009 12:00AM

Zito tries to sneak up on them again


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Consider this column a preemptive strike. The last thing you want is to be ambushed by Nick Zito in the Belmont Stakes. Again. He never rubs it in, but then again, with his record only a fool would fail to give the man the benefit of the doubt.

It happened in 2004 when Zito brought Birdstone down from his Saratoga Shangri-la to catch the weary Smarty Jones in the final yards, ending the Triple Crown fairytale in the process.

It happened last year, although with a much different spin, when Big Brown coughed it up on the far turn in pursuit of his own Triple Crown, creating a vacuum in which Zito's Tiznow colt Da' Tara cruised to a 5 1/4-length victory.

Neither Zito winner really figured, except on faith. Birdstone was 36-1 in the face of odds-on Smarty Jones, while Da' Tara was, at 38-1, the longest shot in a field given no chance against Big Brown.

"The race can be unpredictable," Zito said earlier this week as he put the finishing touches on two more Belmont longshots, Brave Victory and Miner's Escape. "The mile and a half is a long way to go, but it's interesting, because it can look like a normal race, then all of a sudden horses that look like they'll go on don't, and horses who look like they're not running start to run.

"I can't explain it," Zito added. "All I know is that we've had a pretty good record in the Belmont, and I love the race. I love the history, everything about it. I was going to Belmonts since I was a kid. Sherluck . . . you remember Sherluck?"

If there is a more impressionable age for a boy than 13, name it. Zito was a freshly minted teenager and budding racetrack brat when he went to Belmont Park in June 1961 with a reasonable expectation that Carry Back would become the first Triple Crown winner since Citation, who swept the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont the year Zito was born. But Carry Back was a bust, finishing up the track, while Sherluck, named for owner Jacob Sher and trained by Harold Young, stole the dance under Braulio Baeza, at odds of 65-1.

"And Arts and Letters, that was a cool one, too," Zito said, summoning another Triple Crown heartbreak, when Majestic Prince went down to the Rokeby colt in the Belmont of 1969.

The pattern is clear. Zito leans toward the iconoclastic. He's the guy who whispers in the ear of the hero, "All glory is fleeting," as in, "Don't get too comfortable. This is, remember, horse racing."

As heroes go, the best that can be mustered this time around is Mine That Bird, who came from nowhere (okay, Sunland Park) to flatten the Derby and then ran another huge race to be second to Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness. Charitable Man, who took the Peter Pan for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin with authority, is the hometown favorite, while Dunkirk, Chocolate Candy, and Mr. Hot Stuff have been waving around old Derby week clippings for attention.

So it was, with wary anticipation, that Zito was asked if either of his runners on Saturday had a chance to jump up and spoil Mine That Bird's relentless march into the hearts and minds of American racing fans. The trainer was, as usual, circumspect.

"Brave Victory had a good winter," Zito said. "He won his first race back on Jan. 1, then ran in the Swale [fourth] - that was a good race - and ran another good race in the Peter Pan [third]. So who knows?

"Miner's Escape broke his maiden at Gulfstream, and you know there are always top horses in those type of races," Zito continued. "Then he came back to win the Tesio, which is good. So I don't know . . . they've got shots. Who do you like?"

The interviewer dodged the question and changed the subject. Zito was asked about Da' Tara, whose 2008 Belmont score has gone from being the answer to a trivia question to the punch line for bad Big Brown jokes. Since the Belmont, Da' Tara is 0 for 6.

"I blistered his ankles over the winter, and he came back with two good seconds," Zito said.

Zito dearly wanted to bring Da' Tara back to Belmont in prime form for Friday's Brooklyn Handicap, at 1 1/2 miles. He won't make the race, but how sweet it would have been.

"You know what I know," Zito said. "These horses aren't machines. Da' Tara's not Bobby Thomson, but Bobby Thomson still hit that home run. I don't understand why people can't understand that, look, he was good that day. Things just didn't work out for him after the Belmont. He's come back and had a couple good races, so now I'm hoping we have a good 4-year-old season with him."

Zito has run 20 horses in the Belmont Stakes. In addition to the two wins, he has been second six times. The toughest beat of them all was Strike the Gold, whose long, late run fell a head shy of catching Hansel in 1991.

"I remember when Strikey was 0 for 12 after winning the Derby," Zito said. "I was going to run him in the Pimlico Special. Chris Antley's agent at the time says to me, 'Nick, I've got a shot to ride eight or nine here at Belmont. I won't be able to ride Strike the Gold.' "

Zito was shocked and stunned. Or, at least, he did a good imitation.

"I said, 'You're gonna take off Strike the Gold? You won the Derby on him!' So I went and got Craig Perret, and sure enough he beats Best Pal and Fly So Free, and breaks the streak. Guess who Antley's agent was at the time?"

I whiffed a guess.

"Kiaran McLaughlin!" Zito yelped. "There it is. Right or wrong?"