"I just think he's the catalyst of our stable," said Zito of the colt he calls "Elvis" and "Captain King." "If he does well, then the whole stable does well. I like this horse to go a long way."
A son of Charismatic, who won two-thirds of the Triple Crown in 1999, Sun King has won half of his six races and is the 2-1 second choice in the morning line for the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes tomorrow at Keeneland. The lightly raced High Limit, undefeated in three tries, is the 9-5 favorite.
Asked in January about his Derby horses, Zito said he had Sun King and "some hope." "Some hope" blossomed into Bellamy Road, High Fly, Noble Causeway and Andromeda's Hero, who will race tomorrow in the Arkansas Derby.
If all five start in the Kentucky Derby on May 7 at Churchill Downs, then Zito will match D. Wayne Lukas for most starters in America's most famous race. But Zito's team would be stronger than Lukas'. In fact, it would be unprecedented in its strength.
"I don't think anybody in the history of the game has had that kind of hand in the Kentucky Derby," said Ron Anderson, who books mounts for jockey Jerry Bailey. "He could have three horses in there at less than 6-1 in a 20-horse field and two others at less than, say, 12- or 15-1."
In 1996, when Lukas started five, he won with Grindstone, who was 5-1. Grindstone was coupled in the betting with Editor's Note, who finished sixth. Prince of Thieves at 7-1 finished third. Also coupled in the betting at 24-1, Victory Speed finished 10th and Honour and Glory 18th.
"It's great to be in this position," Zito said. "We're truly blessed, and lucky and grateful. If we can just keep this going ... Look, it's inevitable, you're going to have disappointment. It's inevitable you're going to get beat; you're not going to win every single race."
Zito, 57, who started training in 1976, seems to be disproving the axiom that you can't win them all. He finished first and second in the Florida Derby with High Fly and Noble Causeway. He won the Wood with Bellamy Road. If he wins the Blue Grass with Sun King, then he would become the first trainer to win the Florida Derby, Wood and Blue Grass the same year with different horses.
What's more, if Sun King wins the Blue Grass, Zito would become the first trainer to win the race, perhaps the most prestigious of the Derby preps, four times. He is tied at three with LeRoy Jolley, Ben Jones and Woody Stephens.
Those three are members of racing's Hall of Fame. Zito could join them this year in those hallowed halls at Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He is on the ballot along with four other trainers.
Admission to the Hall of Fame rewards a career, but Zito has strengthened his case with recent breakthroughs. His resume included two Kentucky Derbies (Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go for Gin in 1994) and one Preakness (Louis Quatorze in 1996), but he had never won a Belmont, Travers or Florida Derby.
That all changed this past year. Zito won the Belmont and Travers with Birdstone and the Florida Derby with High Fly.
Despite Sun King's standing in Zito's barn, the costly colt - a $400,000 yearling - has won only one stakes, the Tampa Bay Derby. That's not one of the tougher races along the Kentucky Derby trail.
In his two outings in Grade I stakes, last year's Champagne and Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Sun King finished third. This year, he won his 3-year-old debut, an allowance race at Gulfstream Park, and then captured the Tampa Bay Derby with a measured ride by Edgar Prado, his jockey tomorrow.
Bobby Frankel, who trains High Limit, perhaps Sun King's toughest rival in the Blue Grass, said that no matter who wins the race, Bellamy Road is the horse to beat in the Kentucky Derby. Bellamy Road has won his two races this year by 15 3/4 lengths and 17 1/2 lengths.
"He's obviously the most talented horse right now," Frankel said. "A negative about him is that he might have run too fast in that race."
When a horse runs as fast as Bellamy Road did in the Wood, shattering the stakes record and tying the track record, he's eligible to regress in his next start. That's the "bounce theory." Zito prefers not to discuss it.
"We've got a long time to talk about that," Zito said. "Let's see what happens."