05/21/2009 12:00AM

Zito tries to work magic again

Jim McCue/Maryland Jockey Club
Miner's Escape, winning the Federico Tesio, is one of two Belmont prospects for Nick Zito.

ELMONT, N.Y. - With 11 top-three finishes - including two victories - from 20 starters in the Belmont Stakes, Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito has earned a free pass when it comes to starting horses in the third leg of the Triple Crown.

So while, on paper, Brave Victory and Miner's Escape may not have the credentials to win a Triple Crown race, just hearken back to last year when the Zito-trained Da' Tara - with only a maiden win to his credit - rolled to a five-length victory at odds of 38-1. Brave Victory and Miner's Escape have already won twice.

"I don't have a Secretariat," Zito said Thursday morning. "I might not have to.''

He hasn't needed one before. Zito won the 2004 Belmont with 40-1 Birdstone, who upset undefeated Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones after finishing eighth in the Kentucky Derby.

In addition to his two victories, Zito has finished second in the Belmont with Thirty Six Red (1990), Strike the Gold (1991), Go for Gin (1994), Star Standard (1995), A P Valentine (2001), and Andromeda's Hero (2005). Zito's first Belmont starter, Morning Bob, ran third in 1984. Royal Assault (2004) and Anak Nakal (2008) also finished third.

Add in two fourth- and two fifth-place finishes, and Zito-trained runners have earned $2,606,184 in the Belmont.

"We've done well in the Belmont,'' Zito said. "We've been consistent with the race.''

Miner's Escape and Brave Victory are both owned by Robert LaPenta and follow a similar path as other LaPenta-owned stakes winners. LaPenta bought both as yearlings - Miner's Escape for $225,000 and Brave Victory for $200,000 - and attempted to pinhook them as 2-year-olds. Each one failed to reach LaPenta's reserve at auction and then was turned over to Zito.

Miner's Escape, a son of Mineshaft, was beaten a combined 52 lengths in his first two starts. He ran a decent race in his third start - first with blinkers - before a failed attempt on turf. After a fourth in a seven-furlong maiden race in February at Gulfstream, Miner's Escape has won his last two races, both at 1 1/8 miles, including the Federico Tesio at Pimlico.

"Because he's by Mineshaft he obviously needed time and he needed to wake up, and that's what he did, he found himself late,'' Zito said. "He's out of a Broad Brush mare - Broad Brush just passed away - so distance is in his favor.''

As a son of Lion Heart out of a Copelan mare, Brave Victory does not have a pedigree that suggests 1 1/2 miles will be his best distance. But in the Peter Pan, at 1 1/8 miles, Brave Victory rallied from 17 lengths back to finish third, just 5 1/2 lengths behind Charitable Man.

"If you look at the Peter Pan, that's where I got excited,'' Zito said. "[Rajiv] Maragh did a very good job, he let the horse fall back on his own. I couldn't believe he was that far behind, I thought he'd lay pretty close to the pace, but he also had a finishing kick. He actually had a finishing kick in the Lexington [and] he didn't like the synthetic and he still had a finishing kick. So he looks to me that he'll go the distance of ground.''

Thursday morning at Belmont Park, Brave Victory and Miner's Escape worked a half-mile in company, with Brave Victory going the stronger of the two. Brave Victory, with exercise rider Eddie Cruz up, was eager and into the bridle as he worked outside of his stablemate through fractions of 12.37 seconds and 24.17. Brave Victory came home a tick quicker, covering the half-mile in 48.42 seconds, according to Daily Racing Form, while finishing a half-length in front, but he galloped out much better of the two, getting the five furlongs in 1:01.15. Miner's Escape was basically shut down by the time he got to the furlong pole after the wire. Jockey Jose Lezcano worked Miner's Escape.

"Brave Victory's an exceptional work horse, Miner's Escape, ironically, has never been a good work horse,'' Zito said. "I told Jose Lezcano - and he knows that too - let him do it in the race. . . . Most of those Mineshafts are a little funny mentally. We've been successful with Mineshafts because we're willing to take our time. They could be tough horses to train.''

As tough as Zito in the Belmont.

* Flying Private and Luv Gov, the fourth- and eighth-place finishers from the Preakness, returned to the track on Thursday at Churchill Downs for trainer D. Wayne Lukas and both are under consideration for the Belmont. While Flying Private is virtually certain to run, Luv Gov is also being considered for the Northern Dancer at Churchill on June 13, according John Hendrickson, racing manager for and husband of owner Marylou Whitney.