Third time's the charm?

Undaunted by a disastrous Derby and a disappointing Preakness, Nick Zito will be back for more in the Belmont.

Updated: July 22, 2005, 7:08 PM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

Say this much for Nick Zito, he's not a quitter. Undaunted by a disastrous Derby and a disappointing Preakness, he will be back for more in the Belmont, the race that could, when it is least expected, save his Triple Crown season.

It has happened with Zito before. He limped through the entire winter and spring last year and, fittingly, nothing went right for him in the Kentucky Derby, where The Cliff's Edge was fifth and Birdstone was eighth. Smarty Jones looked invincible in the Belmont, but somehow little Birdstone came through and denied him the Triple Crown.

If anything, the task ahead looks even tougher this time around and the stakes may be even higher. Nick Zito needs this to avert an unprecedented Triple Crown disaster. He is about to make 11 starts in the three races and, so far, not a single horse of his has hit the board. He is dangerously close to setting a record or Triple Crown futility that no one would ever want to set.

"We're only human," he said. "There are highs and lows in anything in life. Sure, (winning the Belmont) would be much more gratifying and rewarding with the highs and lows we've had to endure this spring."

He will try this time with Andromeda's Hero, Indy Storm and Pinpoint. The bad news is that this is far from his best group. So, for the Belmont, he can only hope that, well, he gets lucky.

"Anything can happen," Zito said. "This race is a completely different deal because it is a mile and a half. It's not a mile and a quarter. It's not a mile and an eighth. That makes the whole thing unique; that makes the whole thing different. You have to have questions about every horse. That's why we're taking our chances with our three horses and, hopefully, something can change."

At the very least, it can't be as bad as the Derby. There, he ran five horses, tying a record for most starters in the race in a single year. And many thought he had the horse to beat in the favorite, Bellamy Road. Zito did his best to shrug off the disappointment after Bellamy Road, who was seventh, was his closest finisher. But, as hard as he tried to say all the right things, it was obvious that it was a stinging defeat for a trainer who coverts winning the Kentucky Derby.

The Preakness wasn't any better. He tried with three horses, again tying a record for most starters in the race in a single year, and the best he could do was a distant fourth-place finish with the underachieving Sun King.

What happened? Maybe Zito had too good a run through the preps. Bellamy Road was nothing less than brilliant when he won the Wood Memorial. High Fly breezed through the major Florida preps. Noble Causeway was a strong second in the Florida Derby and it looked like he could only get better. In hindsight, maybe Zito's stars peaked too soon.

"We were just going 100 miles per hour before the Kentucky Derby," he said. "Everything was just hitting so good. Sure, there is a danger of peaking too soon. I don't think anybody had the preps that we had going in. If you had to pinpoint one race, it was Sun King in the Blue Grass, when he was fourth. That's when we started to go down. From there, nothing fell into place."

In Andromeda's Hero, Pinpoint and Indy Storm, there doesn't appear to be a horse among the group talented enough to win at this level. At least not right now. Not a one is a graded stakes winners and not a one has compiled the type of speed figures to put a scare into the Afleet Alex or Giacomo camps. Zito believes all three will like the Belmont distance and can only hope that the favorites do not. It's not much to pin your hopes on.

But he has done an excellent job maintaining a proper perspective. He understands that there are more important things in life than winning a horse race and that, Triple Crown bust or not, he has had a great career. That was recognized earlier this week when it was announced that he had made the Hall of Fame. His record has been bruised, but his spirit has not.

"We're here again fighting," he said. "If my luck doesn't change, I'll still be fighting. Enduring is winning. That's the great thing right there."

Enduring is fine. Enduring and coming out ahead in the long run is much better. Maybe Zito will get to was that bad Triple Crown taste out of his mouth Saturday. Stranger things have happened.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com