A Seat in the Bleachers: Small veteran lonely star in Zito's barn
These aren’t Hall of Fame numbers.
And this does not have the appearance of a Triple Crown season for Nick Zito, who has won the Kentucky Derby twice, the Preakness once and the Belmont Stakes twice, with five different 3-year-olds. His 2012 Derby hopes wheezed to a halt on Saturday afternoon when Casual Trick, notorious for breathing trouble, was eased just inside the half-mile pole of the Wood Memorial by jockey Corey Nakatani.
This was Zito, hands in his pockets, trudging back up the homestretch to see what was up now — what now? — while Gemologist and Alpha circled back to the applause of a pretty nice crowd at Aqueduct.
But this will not be the lingering snapshot of Zito’s afternoon.
One race later, he buried his face in the neck of Jackson Bend, overwhelmed by admiration and certainly a great deal of relief, after the little 5-year-old chestnut held off another ferocious charge from Caleb’s Posse by a diminishing nose in the Grade I Carter.
Uncharacteristically, Zito, whose paltry win total and percentage this year are dwarfed by his career numbers, not only doesn’t have a good Derby prospect, he doesn’t have many prospects, period, unless he magically gets some of his 2-year-olds to jump up and dominate at Saratoga Race Course, as he did a few years ago.
At least one barn, Zito’s, was bustling at the almost barren Oklahoma training track on Thursday morning for the opening day of workouts. It’ll be a while before the juveniles arrive. Two-year-olds. Who the hell knows?
In the meantime, he has Jack.
Jackson Bend, a gutty third behind Lookin at Lucky and First Dude in the Preakness two years ago, hasn’t exactly been a winning machine, but he truly is a running machine, diminutive size be damned. He showed it at Saratoga Race Course last season, winning the James Marvin and following it up with a big rally in the Grade I Forego.
Despite the scratch of Tom Fool winner Calibrachoa due to a quarter crack, the Carter still, on paper, was the most intriguing race of the day. It lived up to that distinction because of Caleb’s Posse’s relentless drive to the wire, for sure, but mostly because Jackson Bend simply refused to let him get there first.
It’s been such an otherwise blah year for Zito that he was willing to resort to any helpful angle he could find.
“I was telling everybody, when I was a groom, I grew up around here, and I used to watch races right in that spot over there where the grooms watch the races,” he said, pointing to a spot adjacent to the winner’s enclosure. “I went over to a lucky spot, from when I used to rub horses. It was a great feeling. I’ve got to thank God. I’ve got to thank everything.”
It worked. The front-runner Emcee took just enough of a misstep at the start that John Velazquez was forced to hustle ahead for forward position and serve as the Shackleford softener. The hot pace trainer Donnie Von Hemel and jockey Rajiv Maragh were looking for never quite materialized for Caleb’s Posse, and Jackson Bend made the first move.
“When I saw that [Emcee hustling up], I thought, ‘Good, keep going,’ because we know how game Shackleford is,” Zito said. “I was watching the race and basically said, ‘It’s your race to win now, Jack, it’s your race to win.’ It’s amazing.”
Luck wasn’t enough, but whatever elements are contained in the small Jackson Bend package were.
“When Caleb’s Posse started coming at me . . . this horse has so much heart,” Nakatani said. “It brings a tear to my eye. He’s Mighty Mouse. He’s so little, 15 hands, but he’s got so much heart.”
“Corey’s right, I was tearing up like everybody else,” Zito said. “Just to look at him, you have to wonder, how could this be? Because when you go on the Triple Crown trail, you even heard Kiaran say, oh,
‘Alpha needs a little bit more weight,’ or ‘We need a bit more time’ or this or that, then you look at Jackson Bend, you think, how can he compete in those races? How does he get the distance in the Preakness?”
Zito now will point Jackson Bend, who is scheduled to arrive at the Oklahoma from New York soon, to the Met Mile, where he would likely see Caleb’s Posse and Preakness winner Shackleford again.
To set the record straight, Zito fielded a question about how big Jackson Bend actually is. You get one like, say, Zenyatta, who’s 17 hands, and everybody loves to hear those numbers. Zito doesn’t know how big Jackson Bend is. He doesn’t want to know. Big enough, how’s that? Big enough to carry a barn.