New York-based Nick Zito is one of the most successful thoroughbred trainers in the country. In June, he trained Birdstone to an upset of 3-year-old phenom Smarty Jones, keeping the sport from having its first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. Birdstone went off at odds of 36-1.
Zito had bypassed the Preakness to prepare for the Belmont and score one of his greatest victories. Smarty Jones, meantime, developed chronic bruising of his hooves and did not race again, retiring earlier this summer.
The interview with Zito was conducted Thursday at Saratoga.
George Solomon: You apologized to Smarty Jones's owner and trainer after your victory in the Belmont. Have you had second thoughts about that?
Nick Zito: I was sorry for Smarty Jones because of how much he meant to racing, so I still feel the same. The game is bigger than any one person, but I feel good for what we accomplished.
GS: How can horse racing sustain the national attention Smarty Jones generated during the Triple Crown Series?
NZ: The game will always stay a certain way, that's one of its charms, but you need a Smarty Jones or a 16-year-old jockey sensation or some aspiring actor or actress getting involved to create the excitement. It would also be nice if you could take the atmosphere from Keeneland and Saratoga, bottle it and distribute to every racetrack in the country.
GS: Horse racing in Maryland has been in a difficult business position for years, with many industry leaders saying the tracks need the addition of slot machines to remain profitable. What is your view on this?
NZ: It looks to me like Maryland has to have slots to make the game work there. Racing thrives on it because it generates additional money. But the people who run racing need to be honest to the fan and tell them what's going on.
GS: What drives a trainer to stay in such a competitive business for years?
NZ: I'm blessed to be in it, even with the long hours and trying to explain failure 90 percent of the time, but this is what I do and it's a great profession.