CRAWFORD | Potential spoilers have no qualms about halting Tripl - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Potential spoilers have no qualms about halting Triple Crown history

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No trainer has been better at upsetting Triple Crown bids with Belmont longshots than Nick Zito. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford) No trainer has been better at upsetting Triple Crown bids with Belmont longshots than Nick Zito. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford)
ELMONT, N.Y. (WDRB) — Nick Zito has been there before. Standing in the chute at Belmont Park, surrounded by onlookers murmuring about the beaten Triple Crown favorite, he's been the guy pumping his fists and cheering when his colt played the spoiler.

He did it in 2004 with Birdstone, when half of Philadelphia showed up at the track to cheer on Smarty Jones. He did it again in 2008 with Da' Tara, when Big Brown pulled up with an injury.

In 2004, Bridstone's jockey, Edgar Prado, galloped over to Smarty Jones and jockey Stewart Elliott after the finish and said, “I'm sorry.”

Marylou Whitney, owner of Birdstone, said, “It's bittersweet. We do feel horrible. We love Smarty.”

And so it goes. The trainers who have lined up to stop American Pharoah's bid at history Saturday at Belmont Park make no apologies for the job they're trying to do. They're like defense attorneys — sometimes unpopular, but nonetheless essential.

Kiaran McLaughlin knows most of the 90,000 who show up Saturday won't be there to see his colt, Frosted, pull the upset. But he's hoping that's what they see anyway. Frosted finished fourth to American Pharoah in the Kentucky Derby, then shipped straight to Belmont to rest and train for this chance. His owner, Godolphin Racing, is looking for its first American Triple Crown victory, though its founder, Sheikh Mohammed ben Rashid Al Maktoum — ruler of Dubai and vice president of the United Arab Emirates — won the 2006 Preakness with Bernardini, racing out of his Darley Stable.

“I'm not worried about it,” McLaughlin said, when asked about playing the spoiler. “I hope they're booing me. I have a son in college and another I have to pay for. This is a really nice horse and the race is an American Classic, so for Godolphin and the team I'm trying to win. . . . I was born and raised a racing fan. I'd like to see a Triple Crown, but I'm more worried about my horse and us winning the race. I'd like to see a Triple Crown wearing a white bridle and ‘trained by KTM.'”

Dallas Stewart's Tale of Verve ran second to American Pharoah on the sloppy track in the Preakness, and he, too, shipped straight to Belmont to train for another crack at the favorite. Stewart has specialized in dropping longshots into big races where they can be effective, and thinks Tale of Verve has the pedigree to get the Belmont distance of 1 1/2 miles.

He shook his head when asked if a victory would be bittersweet.

“We don't think about it like that,” he said. “We only think in terms of winning the race. This is what we do. This is how we feed our families. This is the way we make money. This is what we try to accomplish. Yeah, if I don't win it, I hope (American Pharoah) does. I'm a fan of the horse. I love the horse. He's a great horse, and it's going to take a great one to beat him.”

Zito, a native New Yorker who grew up near Aqueduct Race Course, has stood in the way of  history at the Belmont more than any modern trainer. He'll try to do the same with Frammento, a colt he ran in the Derby primarily to prep him for the Belmont.

Zito's Birdstone paid $74 to win the Belmont in 2004. Da' Tara was the longest shot in the field in 2008 and paid $79 to win. Da' Tara never won another race, and finished his career with just two wins in 19 starts.

“I love the game,” Zito said. “You know, you'd love to see a Triple Crown winner. But like everything else, it's history if we can do it (pull the upset) again. If we're lucky enough and blessed enough to do something wacky and have another longshot win, going a mile and a half, then that's history too. And the main thing is you've got to have a horse with pedigree. You've got to have a horse that's doing right, training good, coat looks good, breezes are good, because it may be his only shot. There's been so many Belmont winners — I had one — that's all they won. That race. Right time, right place, right day. Anything can happen. Sports. It's called sports.”

Frammento gives Zito the longest shot in the field again. But Zito has been the best modern trainer, perhaps, at identifying and training horses to race 1 1/2 miles, a distance rarely asked of them outside this single day in American racing.

“We're very proud of the record we've got in the Belmont,” Zito said. “We did win it a couple of times, but we got seven seconds, three thirds, a couple of fourths. Our mile and a half program, somehow, someway, our horses love the distance. So be it. I'll take it. When the other two won, I said where do I sign if they hit the board? You tell me I'm going to be third (Saturday), you got a piece of paper I can sign?”

Christophe Clement, trainer of Tonalist, who ended California Chrome's Triple Crown bid in the Belmont last year, said, "There's nothing negative (about winning). We found a way to sleep at night."

Talking about winning the race is one thing. Actually beating American Pharoah is another.

Everyone agrees, American Pharoah has the most impressive form in the race. If he runs his best, he wins. But nobody is convinced he'll be able to run his best, given that he's on his third race in five weeks, and fourth race in eight weeks.

“American Pharoah is awesome,” McLaughlin said. “We just hope that the three races in five weeks catches up with him. He's going to be tough to beat, but we're ready. I don't know if he can be beat. But we feel like we're likely the one that can do it if he can.”

Zito said he's seen it before. He said the Belmont “is a crazy race,” and you never know how a horse is going to respond.

“Something crazy's got to happen with Pharoah, obviously,” Zito said. “Somebody's got to put pressure on him or down the backside he's got to get rank. But that's what happens. This is a mile and a half race, not a mile and a quarter or a mile and a sixteenth. . . . You look a the form, you get scared to death of Pharoah. You say, ‘Oh, God.' But everybody says it, it's called racing, it's called longshots, it's called sports. Things can happen. That's what's so good about it. That's what I love about it.”

Zito is looking for a triple of his own. For him, and the others challenging American Pharoah on Saturday, history can wait.

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