The encounter served as a reality check for Zito, 66, a reminder of how far he has come from humble beginnings in his native New York. "You’ve got to be thankful for the clothes you already wore, the cars you already drove and the races you’ve already won," he said.
He started at the bottom, as a hotwalker and a groom for Buddy Jacobson, then a top New York trainer. He learned invaluable lessons as an assistant to Hall of Famer Leroy Jolley and John Campo before striking out on his own, producing his first winner when Palais crossed the finish line first at old Liberty Bell Park in Philadelphia in December 1972.
Zito spent years trying to improve claiming horses, striving to bring out qualities others might have missed, and hoping that big-spending owners might notice and give him a shot. He always possessed a keen eye for a bargain; he found one that would change his career when he purchased Thirty Six Red for $92,000 as a yearling at the Keeneland September sale in 1988. Thirty Six Red far outran his purchase price, winning the Wood Memorial, finishing second in the Belmont Stakes and third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
The young trainer was on his way. His dream came true when he won the Kentucky Derby with Strike the Gold in 1991 and his jubilation was there for all the world to see.
"For 25 years I got up every morning saying I was going to win the Kentucky Derby," Zito remembered. "When it happened, I exploded."
It began a roll that led to his induction into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2005. Go for Gin provided a second Derby triumph three years after he first struck gold. Louis Quatorze ended D. Wayne Lukas’ Triple Crown dominance with a stunning triumph in the 1996 Preakness.
With two Triple Crown threats at hand, Zito produced stunning upsets in the Belmont Stakes in 2004 and 2008. First, it was Birdstone rallying to deny Smarty Jones his place among the Triple Crown immortals, paying $74 for anyone with enough faith to wager $2 on him. Then it was Da’ Tara, returning $79 four years later on a shocking afternoon when rousing Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown failed to finish.
"Most of the races they consider important we did win," Zito said, reflecting on his body of work.
Zito showed his touch with young horses in winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies in 1996 and the Juvenile in 2007. Birdstone backed up his Belmont score in the Travers. Commentator, all heart, got home in the 2005 and 2008 editions of the Whitney.
Zito is always quick to remind those around him how humbling the sport can be, and he has been humbled of late. But when he looks at the success of Lukas in the twilight of his career, he is determined to follow that example.
"I think you need to go out on top," he said. "You need to go out your way.