Zito hopes to do it again with aptly named Agincourt


At the Pimlico stakes barn yesterday, trainer Nick Zito bent over, reached down and picked up a penny from the copper-colored dirt outside stall 15.

There's no telling how many people had walked past the spot without noticing the lucky coin. Zito's luck, it seems, has turned.

He won last Saturday's $700,000 Pimlico Special with Strike the Gold, the first win for that Alydar 4-year-old since capturing last year's Kentucky Derby.

Now Zito is preparing Robert Perez's Agincourt for Saturday's 117th running of the $500,000-added Preakness Stakes.

"That wouldn't be a bad haul within the space of eight days," someone said, "winning the Pimlico Special and the Preakness."

"It would be good," said Zito, 44. "Let's put it this way -- we're the only one with a chance."

Although Agincourt will be a long shot in the Preakness, Zito thinks he has a legitimate shot.

"He's a pretty nice horse and he's been lightly raced," said the native New Yorker. "Last year he beat a couple horses he'll be running against Saturday -- Dance Floor and Pine Bluff -- in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile."

Zito is a different man this week after having the monkey taken off his back by Strike the Gold in the Special. Nick will continue to train Strike the Gold at Pimlico through the week as he points for the fifth race in the American Championship Racing Series, the $500,000 Nassau County Handicap at Belmont Park June 6.

The pressure on Zito started here at last year's Preakness, when the Derby winner ran a disappointing sixth. It continued for another 11 winless starts. It ended Saturday.

"It was eating me up," Zito said. "Last year was terrible. I hated the Preakness last year. With Agincourt this year, I don't have any pressure. This will be a fun Preakness for us."

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who will run Big Sur and Dance Floor in the Preakness, says the race is more than wide open.

"It's a handicapper's nightmare," said Lukas, whose earnings during the last 12 years have soared past the $125 million mark. "You show me your trifecta when they go in the gate. If you've got it, you're some handicapper."

The better of Lukas' two Preakness colts appears to be Dance Floor, who is owned by rap star Hammer and his family. Dance Floor was third in the Derby behind Lil E. Tee and Casual Lies.

"I think Dance Floor will run well here," said Lukas. "I've never had a Derby horse come to the Preakness like this one [Lukas has run 19 horses in the Derby].

"Usually horses leave something at the Derby. You can ask any trainer and he'll tell you that. I think Dance Floor actually gained something in Louisville. He's solid now and ready to run."

Lukas' other Preakness horse, Big Sur, second in last Wednesday's Withers Stakes at Belmont Park, will ship here Thursday.

It looks as if there will be 14 starters in the Preakness. That would fill the regular starting gate. It also would be the largest field since 1928 for this second jewel of the Triple Crown.

Starter Eric Blind, whose responsibility it is to get the field out of the gate cleanly, is not worried about a Preakness field so crowded that -- as the track's ex-general manager, Chick Lang, jokes -- it threatens to be "a demolition derby."

"I expect to have 14 starters," Blind said. "Even if we get some scratches, we have horses waiting to get in. That's not too many horses, though. We have 14 stalls in the gate.

"I don't like it when the number goes over that. That's when we have to add an auxiliary gate. The outside horses are too far away from you then."

Blind's philosophy is the opposite of Kentucky Derby starter Bob Wagner.

"As soon as the last horse is loaded in, Bob hits the button," Blind said. "He does that every year and everybody knows he's going to do it.

"I like to at least try to make sure no horse is shifting his weight backward when I open the gate. A horse has one chance in his life to win a Preakness. I'll have a helper at every stall. When there's a problem, they holler at me to tell me about it.

"There's an old saying at the racetrack that good horses are good horses. These Preakness horses have been treated well all their lives. They have good temperaments. They're a lot easier to handle than cheap horses."

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