The Kentucky Derby is less than a month away, and there's still no clear-cut favorite. That is, unless you prefer a trainer instead of a thoroughbred.
Nick Zito has been an imposing presence on this year's road to the Derby with five 3-year-olds in contention. Two of them, High Fly and Sun King, could end up as favorites in the $2 million Derby, but right now it's Zito who's the early choice to show up in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs on May 7.
Florida Derby winner High Fly or Tampa Bay Derby winner Sun King easily could give Zito his third Derby victory and first since Go for Gin in 1994. But he also trains rising stars Noble Causeway, runner-up in the Florida Derby; Bellamy Road, Yankees boss George Steinbrenner's colt; and Andromeda's Hero.
The morning after becoming the first trainer in 30 years to run 1-2 in the Florida Derby, Zito showed up at his barn, bags packed and ready to head to Kentucky. His winter was a rousing success, perhaps his best ever.
"It's unbelievable,'' Zito said. "I was talking to my son, Alex ... and he said, `Dad, you realize everything went unbelievable?' I said, `Yeah, everything fell into place.''
Zito showed up for the Gulfstream Park meet with Sun King and a lot of hope. Two of his budding colts, Noble Causeway and Andromeda's Hero, won their first races in Florida; High Fly and Bellamy Road were sent to him after their owners fired the original trainers.
"We came to Florida with a maiden, Noble Causeway,'' Zito said. "We were lucky to inherit these two great horses. And Andromeda's Hero, he was a maiden, too, until he won at Calder. It's just one of those years. No question. It's been a great winter.''
Take Noble Causeway. In his stakes debut, the colt ran a huge race to finish behind High Fly in the Florida Derby. After the race, jockey Edgar Prado said: "You'll hear from him in the future. Nick has done a super job with him.''
A racing Hall of Fame nominee this year, Zito is reluctant to discuss what it'll be like to send out so many starters in the race every horseman wants to win. He knows how quickly fortunes can change, especially as the Derby draws closer.
Several top contenders have been knocked off the Derby trail for one reason or another, including unbeaten Declan's Moon, the 2-year-old male champion, and trainer Bob Baffert's Roman Ruler. A few more, Afleet Alex and Rockport Harbor, are battling health problems but were still scheduled to run in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park on April 16 in their final prep.
Last year, Zito had three Derby hopefuls in Birdstone, Eurosilver and The Cliff's Edge. By Derby day, however, Eurosilver was a no show (health problems), Birdstone ran despite a minor ailment and finished eighth and The Cliff's Edge was a disappointing fifth after losing a shoe on the muddy track.
Only Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas has started five horses in one Derby. He did it in 1996, and won with Grindstone. Prince of Thieves finished third, Editor's Note was sixth, Victory Speech 10th and Honour and Glory 18th.
Lukas said Zito has done a terrific job managing his horses -- picking the right race at the right time -- but warns: "It's April now.''
"There's no place to hide. There are no more Tampa Bays or allowance races at Gulfstream,'' Lukas said from Churchill Downs. "It's time to step up. Bless his heart, I hope he gets all of them there. I'm pulling for him. But it's tough just to get one there. If he gets five shots, fine. When I look across the paddock, they're just horses to me. I don't care who brings them over there.''
The 57-year-old Zito has five healthy horses for five different owners. High Fly and Noble Causeway will train up to the Derby. Bellamy Road won Saturday's Wood Memorial by 17 1/2 lengths at Aqueduct, while Sun King is set for the Blue Grass on April 16 and Andromeda's Hero will go in either the Arkansas Derby or the Lexington Stakes on April 23.
"Everybody likes to have good horses,'' fellow New York trainer Pat Kelly said. "Nick, the Triple Crown, the Derby, that's his thing. And he attracts clients that are trying to do that.''
Even Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia says the only way to have a strong favorite at this point is to "lump Nick Zito's contenders together.''
The Derby field is limited to 20 starters, and if more are entered, the final determination would be based on graded-stakes earnings. Bellamy Road, High Fly and Sun King are fine and Noble Causeway looks solid, but Andromeda's Hero needs to boost his earnings.
"It's amazing what the Derby does, everybody wants to run in it,'' Zito said. "If you take a step back, you'll see that maybe most horses that are worried about this or that probably don't even belong. But that's the way the Derby is ... it's a fabric of America and we're all guilty of it. And that's what makes the business go around.''
Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey has seen three of Zito's contenders up close. His Derby hopeful, Gotham Stakes winner Survivalist, was beaten by 5 3/4 lengths by Sun King in an allowance race at Gulfstream on Feb. 26.
"We just caught a bear cat in Sun King,'' McGaughey said. "It was an off-the-screen kind of race.''
As for High Fly, McGaughey says, "He ran a mile early in the winter and was really impressive. ... And his last two races, he kind of laid right up there and kind of won as he pleased.'' On Bellamy Road: "He was very impressive in Florida,'' referring to the colt's 15 3/4 -length romp in an allowance race last month.
Lukas has sent out a record 41 Derby starters -- he's won the race four times -- while Zito is tied for fourth with 14. When it comes to the Derby, though, winning is all that matters.
"I always say when you go to a horse sale, nobody says `I'm gonna win this or that race,' they always say, `I'm gonna win the Kentucky Derby,''' Zito said. "They never say, `I'm gonna win the Arc de Triomphe.'''