He had the favorite, a muscular dark bay colt named Bellamy Road, and George Steinbrenner's checkbook behind him.
Nick Zito had the fourth, fifth, sixth and 14th betting-favorites, too other bays, browns and chestnuts, a quarter of the Kentucky Derby field in all and other owners with bankrolls every bit as big as The Boss'. He had a wealth of experience, two previous wins in thoroughbred racing's premier event, and a demeanor perfectly suited to a racket where even the best in the business win only one of every five times out.
But at the end of a picture-postcard Saturday afternoon, all the trainer had to show for the armada he sailed into Churchill Downs on such high hopes was this:
''I always think about this quote,'' Zito said in the run-up to the race. ''In this business, you are always one minute from nothing.''
Only one other trainer in the 130 previous runnings of the Derby brought as many entries to the start line. That was D. Wayne Lukas in 1996. Grindstone was hardly the star of Lukas' stable that week, but few people remembered that and cared even less when the dark brown colt got his nose a half-inch in front at the wire, the narrowest winning margin ever.
This year, Lukas, a four-time Derby winner himself, was stabled several barns to the west from Zito's operation. But he didn't need to see the crush of reporters gathered there every morning to know what the pressure encircling his rival felt like.
''We'll put a suicide watch on Nick,'' Lukas joked at midweek, ''if he doesn't win.''
Fortunately, that wasn't necessary.
''Obviously, it wasn't our day,'' Zito said, before heading back to his barn. ''Great expectations bring great disappointments. What can you say? No excuses. I'm human like everyone else. It's gonna be a little bit of a setback.''
It was little consolation that one of Lukas' disciples, fellow trainer Todd Pletcher, entered three horses and headed to the backstretch afterward with the same empty feeling. By the same token, it hardly added to the pain Zito already felt that eventual winner Giacomo, a 50-1 long shot who ran down Afleet Alex in the stretch to win, and his jockey, Mike Smith, were settling an old score.
Zito's second Derby win, with Go for Gin in 1994, came at the expense of that year's favorite. Smith was aboard Holy Bull that day, and aboard his son on this one.
''Giacomo,'' the jockey said afterward, ''redeemed his father's name.''
No one saw a revenge play in the making when dawn broke on the backstretch. Zito whiled away the morning in his office with son Alex, spent a few minutes huddling with each of his owners, sent out for pizza in mid-afternoon, then disappeared just long enough to change into a navy blazer and charcoal slacks.
When he returned from the racetrack, his head was down and his expression almost impossible to read. Dusty shoes were the only telltale sign of where Zito had been. It wasn't until he came back out of his office and kicked at the dirt a few times, like one of his thoroughbreds, that it became apparent how the trip had gone.
''When you start thinking about what happens in life, this ain't that bad,'' he said before making the long walk back to his barn.
It was about as much as Zito was prepared to say. Assistant trainer Renaldo Abreu materialized a moment later to say his boss, so gracious with his time all week, was done talking.
That might have been as revealing as anything Zito could say. Instead, he emerged from the barn one last time as darkness set in.
''Everybody in the world said you're going to do it,'' he said.
And so almost everybody had. Every morning on the backstretch, it seemed the interest in his thoroughbred quintet had multiplied. And every morning, Zito walked to the corner of a temporary plastic fence set up near the entrance to his barn, climbed onto a low wooden box like some old-time politician, and held court.
He never failed to mention feeling ''so blessed, so grateful, so humble.'' He knew the chance to take five horses into the Derby would likely never come along again in his lifetime.
Now, he seemed more certain than ever.
''It's been an incredible run,'' Zito said. ''It had to end sometime.''
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist with The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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