Saturday, May 3, 2003

Kentucky Oaks: Tears fall freely for Zito


Bird Town win ends drought

By Dustin Dow
The Cincinnati Enquirer

LOUISVILLE - Standing trackside just after the completion of the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs, almost 30 seconds went by before Bird Town trainer Nick Zito spoke an audible word. So choked with emotion after his horse had just pulled off an amazing win in the 129th running of the nation's premier filly race, all Zito could do was cry, kiss his fingers and point to the sky.

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That last gesture, which he made twice, was for his mother who died 2 1/2 years ago. The tears were in celebration for Bird Town and the end to a two-year slump where Zito hadn't won any major stakes races. The filly stumbled badly out of the gate but recovered and steadily gained on the pack, going from eighth to fourth place heading into the final stretch.

With jockey Edgar Prado aboard, Bird Town won the 1 1/8-mile race in 1:48.64 at 18-1 odds. She finished 3 1/4 lengths ahead of second-place Santa Catarina.

"Grown men cry, huh?" Zito asked no one in particular, perhaps surprised at his own emotions as he waited to congratulate Prado and owner Marylou Whitney in the winner's circle. "This is a thrilling race. It's rewarding."

Zito is better known for his Kentucky Derby performances, having won two with Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go for Gin in 1994. But he hasn't started a Derby horse since A.P. Valentine in 2001. The last two years since his mother died have been difficult for Zito, especially on the track where he admitted earlier this week he needed to do a better job of finding the right horses to race in the Oaks or the Derby.

"Before honor is humility," Zito said back in the media tent, fully composed, seated next to Whitney. "Sometimes I think we forget that. This sport humbles kings."

The New Yorker is so respected in Kentucky that Churchill Downs made a bobblehead doll of his likeness in November. Still, he had just one previous Oaks entry before Friday, Storm Song, a third-place finisher in 1997. He had two fillies in Friday's race, Bird Town and Holiday Lady, who finished eighth. When Zito saw Bird Town stumble, he figured his bad luck of late had followed him to the Oaks.

"I told Kim, my wife, 'Not again - how many big races can this happen?' I haven't had a lot of luck lately," he said.

Despite his unfortunate run the last two years, Whitney saw enough ability in Zito as a trainer to keep him. Of course, it was Whitney who also recognized that Bird Town's dam, Dear Birdie, could produce a champion horse with Cape Town as the sire.

"I couldn't sell Dear Birdie," Whitney said. "I found her on a little dirt farm. She had ulcers and looked bad. We nursed her back to health and said, 'We're going to make her great.' "

Zito made sure to thank Whitney for creating the opportunity to train Bird Town, and he repeatedly cited her loyalty to him as one of the great things about the sport.

But as he stood on the track, catching glimpses of Bird Town and Prado in the winners circle, Zito realized why the win felt so good, comparable to winning the Kentucky Derby he later said.

"This is a ladies' day," Zito said. "This one is for my mom."

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E-mail ddow@enquirer.com

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