ELMONT, N.Y. -- Trainer Nick Zito got up from what he called "a Wayne Lukas power nap" about 8:30 yesterday morning here in his Belmont Park office and hiked through the rain to his stable next door to check on War Pass.
The horse, last year's 2-year-old champion, has of late needed a great deal of looking after. Most recently, on Wednesday afternoon, a bad landing at Long Island's MacArthur Airport sent the horse to his knees and left him with a cut on the underside of his chin.
"He hit his jaw and needed three staples to close [the wound]," Zito said. "But this morning, when we jogged him, he was sharp."
War Pass, his head out over his stall door, seemed unconcerned about the landing mishap as he alternately took a drink of water, a bite of hay and then a playful nip at a coat sleeve.
Today's Grade I, $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct already has enough tension in it for the horse's connections - owner Robert LaPenta, racing manager Ernie Reichard and Zito - who must find out whether War Pass deserves to go to the Kentucky Derby.
"If he runs a very competitive race, he should go," LaPenta said during a conference call earlier this week. "If he runs a very poor race ... certainly I'd think we'd have to go back to the drawing board."
It's suddenly an unknown world for the horse, who leads all 3-year-olds with $1,320,000 in stakes earnings, the prime prerequisite for entry into the Kentucky Derby. Until three weeks ago, he was on a five-race winning streak and was No. 1 on nearly everyone's ticket to be this year's Derby favorite.
But in horse racing things can change in the time it takes a starter to ring the bell and open the starting gates.
On March 15 in the Tampa Bay Derby, things changed dramatically for the son of Cherokee Run. He was a 1-20 favorite but had not settled at his post when the starter rang the bell and the doors flew open. When he finally got going, he was squeezed by the horse on either side of him, presenting the Breeders' Cup champ, who likes to be on the lead, with an entirely unfamiliar scenario.
Yet the scariest thing for LaPenta and Zito was the way War Pass flailed at the top of the stretch, unable to catch his breath.
"I think he might have flipped his palate," LaPenta said. "For a horse to be in that much distress, a horse that we saw just three weeks earlier basically cruise ... and come to the winner's circle without even breathing heavy, well, that was not the horse we saw [at Tampa]. A flipped palate is the most probable explanation."
Said Zito: "We just hope whatever it was was a one-time thing."