Can 'Gin' find joy after mud? PREAKNESS '94


Nick Zito leans against a faded red wall of the Preakness barn at Pimlico Race Course, looking like someone who has just lived through the longest 10 days of his life.

A catatonic Preakness stare has replaced Zito's post-Kentucky Derby glow.

At Churchill Downs a couple of weeks ago, Zito had the luxury of training his Kentucky Derby starter, Go For Gin, in relative obscurity. The horse was a long shot, an East Coast shadow of mist-colored Holy Bull.

Then came the chaotic Derby scramble, a scrum in the slop that more resembled a rugby match than a horse race.

Holy Bull stalled.

Go For Gin starred.

When the skies had cleared, Zito greeted the sports paparazzi in Baltimore with a legitimate Preakness favorite. The pressure was on. Although three of the more prominent Derby contenders -- runner-up Strodes Creek, second choice Brocco and beaten favorite Holy Bull -- didn't show up for a rematch, the three other Derby starters that are running in the Preakness are training well, and there are six other fresh horses waiting for their chance to shoot down the Derby winner.

Zito admitted yesterday that the training-in-a-fishbowl routine "starts to wear on you after a while. But that's the way it is. You have the favorite. You stand in front of the horse's stall and answer questions."

Not that Zito is unused to the procedure. He arrived at Pimlico in 1991 with the Derby winner, Strike the Gold, and left with a Preakness loser.

Now, he said, going back to his home base in New York with a chance to clinch the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes "means everything to me."

The good news is that Go For Gin "has hung in there like a champ," Zito said.

The horse worked well on Monday and has maintained his weight and enthusiasm. When Chris McCarron, his jockey, jumped off the horse after a breeze through Pimlico's homestretch yesterday, he told Zito "he's as good as he's ever been."

Still, a Kentucky Derby winner has not won the Preakness since Sunday Silence edged Easy Goer in 1989. And Go For Gin's victory in the Derby still begs the question: Did the horse win the Derby solely because he's a superior mudder?

A case can be made for any one of Go For Gin's nine Preakness rivals to upset the favorite.

After $179,627 was bet at Pimlico and other Maryland wagering outlets by 6:15 p.m. yesterday in Preakness advance wagering, the actual favorite, with about two percent of the Preakness bets in, was Tabasco Cat.

He rated a slight 5-2 edge over Go For Gin, who was at 3-1.

Tabasco Cat got off slowly in the Derby and never seemed to handle the track, finishing sixth. He is trainer D. Wayne Lukas' 16th Preakness starter. In the past 14 years, Lukas has run the gamut of finishes, from winning twice -- in 1980 with Codex and in 1985 with Tank's Prospect -- to having Union City break down last year and be destroyed after the race.

Tabasco Cat's jockey, Pat Day, also has plenty of Preakness experience. In eight rides, he has won twice, first with Tank's Prospect in 1985 and then five years later on Summer Squall.

Ranking up there in Preakness victories with Lukas is Jack Van Berg. He also has won twice, with Gate Dancer in 1984 and Alysheba in 1987. He is running his first Preakness starter, Blumin Affair, in six years. His horse beat Tabasco Cat last year in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and has since been second in the Arkansas Derby and third in the Kentucky Derby. The horse's jockey, Jerry Bailey, won the Preakness in 1991 with Hansel.

"Blumin Affair looks terrific," Zito said yesterday.

Two other trainers with starters are previous Preakness winners.

Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham has named Pat Valenzuela on his horse, Numerous. Whittingham and Valenzuela teamed up in 1989 and won with Sunday Silence.

Numerous won the Derby Trial. With his tactical speed, he should be able to stalk expected pace-setters Silver Goblin and Polar Expedition and fire his best shot in the stretch.

Louie Roussel III, who sends out long shot Kandaly, saddled 1988 Preakness winner Risen Star. His jockey, Craig Perret, has won the Kentucky Derby, but has yet to win a Preakness, although he has been second three times.

The Preakness field basically divides itself into three parts.

The front-runners figure to be Silver Goblin, who has worked sensationally here; Polar Expedition, Go For Gin and Tabasco Cat.

Silver Goblin's owner, Al Horton, turned down $1.25 million for the gelding in March and should now see his yellow and black silks being carried in front going into the Preakness' first turn.

Numerous and Powis Castle comprise the second flight. Powis Castle ran close to the pace in the Kentucky Derby but is expected to be farther back today. Lagging behind early will be the Maryland-bred entry of Concern and Looming, owned by Robert Meyerhoff, as well as Blumin Affair and Kandaly.

"There's a nice blend in the race," Lukas said. "There's certainly a lot of speed."

The outcome of the race will depend on whether that speed, led by Silver Goblin, holds up, and how Go For Gin contends with the added pressure in the Preakness after coasting in front by his lonesome in the Kentucky Derby.

As for Zito, he wants to go back to Belmont Park a winner.

"It's not what it used to be," he said, recalling when horse racing received more exposure and attention in New York, both in the press and from the public. "But going back home with a Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner is still plenty special."

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