05/15/2002 11:00PM

Zito's here, throwing two haymakers

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BALTIMORE - Nick Zito was the first trainer to send his Preakness Stakes horses to Pimlico, bringing longshots Crimson Hero and Straight Gin to the stakes barn more than a week before the race. Until a few others started to trickle in early this week, followed by the contingent of horses that arrived Wednesday from Churchill Downs, Zito had the place, and the attention, to himself.

But he knew on Tuesday he was about to get the bum's rush from the stage.

"My two days are over," Zito said, laughing. "When everybody else gets here, you won't want to talk to me."

Zito has been on the outside looking in throughout the spring. Three of his best Kentucky Derby prospects - Father Steve, High Star, and Silent Fred - went to the sidelines early in the season. Zito flirted with entering Crimson Hero in the Derby, then decided to wait. He entered Straight Gin in the Derby, but the colt was excluded because he did not have sufficient earnings to make the overflow Derby field. Zito has been like the poor guy who stands outside the velvet ropes at a club and keeps getting passed over by the security guards.

Zito is hoping the attention will swing back his way Saturday in the Preakness, yet he has even greater designs on the final leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes on June 8. Both Crimson Hero and Straight Gin, he admits, are behind the division's leaders. Zito is more confident they can catch up by the Belmont. And while he thinks the Preakness will help them prepare for the Belmont, he thinks they have outside chances to make an impact in the Preakness.

Is he bold enough to predict which horse will run better?

"I might be bold enough, but I'm not stupid enough," said Zito, ever the diplomat.

Crimson Hero and Straight Gin have different owners - Crimson Hero owned by Tracy Farmer and Straight Gin owned by Marylou Whitney and her husband, John Hendrickson.

"They go to the same parties. They can't throw mashed potatoes at each other," Zito said. He mimicked flicking food with a spoon to emphasize the point.

Zito was in that kind of jocular mood all week. He is under little pressure. Crimson Hero is 20-1 on the early line set by Mike Watchmaker of Daily Racing Form. Straight Gin is 30-1.

Being back in the Triple Crown makes Zito happy. He is a two-time winner of the Derby and won the Preakness in 1996 with Louis Quatorze. He has yet to win the Belmont. "Been second five times, and we've got a third and a fourth," he pointed out. Zito was at Churchill Downs throughout Derby week, but when War Emblem won the Derby, Zito was watching the race on television at a home that he and his wife, Kim Nelson, had rented in Lexington, Ky.

A few days later, Zito headed straight to Pimlico.

"We were taught this way. All my life, since I was rubbing horses, we were taught to go in and adapt to the track. Other people have had success coming in off the plane," Zito said, acknowledging the strategy used by trainers Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas when they have won the Preakness, "but for me, this is what we have to do.

"This is a great American race," Zito said. "It's one of the best races we have in the country. It's an honor to run horses here."

If not on his sleeve, Zito wears the stars and stripes on his head. Since last fall, he has worn a Fire Department of New York baseball-style cap in the morning. "A Tribute to Heroes" is written on the side of the cap. The hat is adorned with insignias of the flag. Zito knew several people who were killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, including Billy Minardi, the brother-in-law of basketball coach Rick Pitino, who owns horses that Zito trains.

"That was a terrible, terrible thing," Zito said. "I think we all need to take time out to remember what happened."

Talking about his horses lightens Zito's mood.

Crimson Hero most recently finished second to Proud Citizen, the subsequent Derby runner-up, in the Lexington Stakes on April 20 at Keeneland. He has raced just five times, with a mere two starts this year. His only win came here at Pimlico, in a maiden race last Sept. 13.

"I worked him closer to the Preakness because I want to make sure he's as fit as can be," Zito said.

Zito has taken his time with Crimson Hero out of necessity. He is a late foal, born May 21, so he will not be 3 years old on the calendar until three days after the Preakness. He also "got sick," Zito said, after finishing fourth in the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity last Oct. 6 at Keeneland. He did not race for another five months. "I didn't want to go slow. I had to go slow," Zito said.

Crimson Hero is a half-brother to Zito's top older stakes horse of recent years, Albert the Great. They are out of the same dam, Bright Feather.

Straight Gin also is a blood relative to a past Zito runner. He is a son of Go for Gin, with whom Zito won the 1994 Kentucky Derby. Straight Gin has raced eight times. He finished fourth in the Blue Grass Stakes in his last start on April 13. "He hit the side of the gate at the start, and it knocked him out. That's why he didn't finish better," Zito said.

"Maybe I'm missing the boat, but this is a Belmont horse," he said. "He wants to run nine miles."