Winning the Kentucky Derby is on every horse trainer's list. Exactly where it is depends on the trainer.
It's No. 1 on Nick Zito's list. It's also Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5. It's No. 1 on Todd Pletcher's list, but it's not No. 2.
"Our whole year doesn't revolve around it, or the Triple Crown," said Pletcher. "We try to manage our stable in a fashion to get the best out of our horses year round. I wouldn't say the Derby's a driving force."
Zito's take? "Everyone knows I love the Derby. That's what our operation is about."
Zito has two Derby wins
Their philosophies may differ, but both have a burning desire to win America's biggest race. Zito has done it twice, with Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go for Gin in 1994; Pletcher is 0-for-9 since saddling his first starters in 2000.
Zito and Pletcher are the major players in next Saturday's $2 million Derby, and the odds are with one of them showing up in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs.
In an amazing run of good fortune, Zito has a record-equaling five horses for the race, including early favorite Bellamy Road, who won the Wood Memorial on April 9 by an astonishing 17 1/2 lengths. The 57-year-old New Yorker also will send out Florida Derby winner High Fly, Tampa Bay Derby winner Sun King, Noble Causeway and Andromeda's Hero.
"If owners want to go to the Derby, we have a good chance of getting them there," said Zito, whose Derby horses have five different owners.
In fact, Bellamy Road owner George Steinbrenner and High Fly owner Charlotte Weber of Live Oak Plantation sent their horses to Zito after firing their original trainers.
Pletcher has three entries
Pletcher, a Texan based in New York, saw his Derby hopefuls come on strong in recent weeks and will have three 3-year-olds in the field -- Blue Grass winner Bandini, Lexington Stakes winner Coin Silver and Arkansas Derby runner-up Flower Alley.
Two trainers, with 40 percent of an expected full field of 20 horses.
"It's a tribute to the way they do their jobs," said Cot Campbell, who operates Dogwood Stable and has sent horses to both trainers. "I think they live by the philosophy that the Derby's the most important race. That it's the chance to grab the gold ring, and boy you better stretch out there and try to get it."
From the day Zito saddled his first Derby starter -- Thirty Six Red finished ninth in 1990 -- he fell in love with the Bluegrass state, from the wild scene at Churchill Downs on race day to the tranquil setting of Keeneland Race Course, just a 90-minute drive away in Lexington.
"It's the people here," Zito said. "I try to be a decent person, not put on airs, and just be myself. And they accepted me with open arms. It's our second home."
Young and successful
Pletcher, a former assistant under Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, only has been on his own since December 1995. Yet he already has been labeled by some as the nation's best trainer without a win in a Triple Crown race -- the Derby, Preakness or Belmont. Never mind he's just 37 and about to take part in his fifth Derby.
"It is the one race that, like everyone else who trains, I want to win," said Pletcher, who was second with Invisible Ink in the 2001 Derby. "And if I could only win one race, that's the one. But I don't have such tunnel vision that I don't look at everything else going on and I try to focus on successfully mapping campaigns for all of my horses, not just the ones that are on the Derby trail."
Both passionate about the game
Lukas, a four-time Derby winner preparing for his 25th Derby (he'll saddle Consolidator), describes his rivals as passionate about the game, with each having a slightly different focus.
"Todd's very dedicated to building a successful program, and now he has good clientele to back him," said Lukas. "He's got it all going right now. He's the golden boy now and deservedly so."
Zito, he said, is as Derby-driven as ever, especially after missing the race in 2002 and 2003, then finishing fifth with The Cliff's Edge and eighth with Birdstone last year.
"He has a deep passion for the Triple Crown," said Lukas. "And he's had a few lean years, so he's got to be really hungry this time. He's had a pretty long time between drinks. I'm sure that's fueling his fire."
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