On a cool, overcast afternoon last Saturday at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Nick Zito stepped onto the track, glanced over at his 4-year-old colt Strike the Gold and crooned softly, "O.K., Strikey, you get another chance." The 44-year-old trainer was in a pensive mood as he accompanied the 1991 Kentucky Derby winner toward the infield saddling area before the $700,000 Pimlico Special, the fourth of the nine-race American Championship Racing Series (ACRS) for older horses. Winless in his 12 starts since last year's Derby, Strike the Gold was clearly at a crossroads. Another disappointing finish would force Zito to concede that perhaps Strike the Gold had just been lucky in the Derby and needed a downgrade in competition.
Four days earlier, at Belmont Park, Strike the Gold became the first Derby-winning colt to be sold at public auction while still active, the end result of a long and bitter feud among his three owners. But Zito was relieved when two of the partners, Joe Cornacchia and Bill Condren, bought the colt for $2.9 million and sent him back to Zito to finish preparations for the Pimlico Special.
The favorite in the 1 3/16-mile Special was Best Pal, unbeaten in four starts this year and, ironically, the horse that finished second to Strike the Gold in the Kentucky Derby. Although many writers were calling him the best horse in the country, Best Pal had never quite caught the public's fancy the way Strike the Gold did. As the Derby winner's losses mounted, so did the fan mail he received in Zito's tack room. That kind of support kept Zito going through a year that had gone sour in almost every respect. Besides being involved in a divorce, Zito was caught in the middle of the owners' dispute, in which Cornacchia and Condren were allied against B. Giles Brophy, the Wall Street wheeler-dealer who had established the partnership.
That partnership worked fine until last spring, when Strike the Gold emerged as a Derby contender. "After that," says Condren, "Giles essentially did not want to share the horse with anybody." The feud escalated alarmingly. There was a shouting match at the Idle Hour Country Club in Lexington, Ky., after the colt's win in the Blue Grass Stakes in April '91; there were celebrations in separate Louisville establishments after the Derby; and there was bickering before the Preakness about who would accept the trophy (that last question became moot when Strike the Gold finished sixth to Hansel).
Last August, Condren and Cornacchia ousted Brophy as managing partner, and the legal wrangling began. Brophy filed lawsuits against his partners in an effort to regain control of the Derby winner and to dissolve the partnership, charging they were not giving the colt a much needed rest. Unable to agree on a buyout price for Brophy's third of the partnership, the antagonists exercised their rights under New York State law to auction off the horses they owned in common‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë‚àö√Ühence Strike the Gold's appearance last Tuesday in the sales tent.
With all that mercifully out of the way, Zito could finally concentrate on Strike the Gold and the race that would determine the colt's future. What happened next was, in the words of ACRS founder Barry Weisbord, a "made-for-TV movie with a happy ending." As is his wont, Strike the Gold promptly dropped back to last, 12 lengths behind the pacesetting Fly So Free, in the Special's seven-horse field. Making his move in the turn for home, jockey Craig Perret took dead aim on the leaders at the top of the stretch, and Strike the Gold roared down the middle of the track to take a¬¨¬®‚àö¬∂-length victory that had Zito jumping and yelling as the colt crossed the finish line, in a time of 1:54[4/5] Fly So Free was second, 1¬¨¬®¬¨‚à´ lengths ahead of Twilight Agenda, who was 2¬¨¬®¬¨‚à´ lengths ahead of Best Pal. The favorite had reasonable excuses: He "didn't like the track," said jockey Kent Desormeaux, and he was giving away as much as 15 pounds to his rivals. While Best Pal will be shipped back to California for a rest, Zito plans to send Strike the Gold to the next ACRS stop, the June 6th Nassau County Handicap at Belmont.
At the postrace victory party, Zito, his frown lines softening into a smile, said, "This was the one we needed. I always said this horse was special, so I guess the Special was the race for him to win."
Perret and Strike the Gold trailed by 12 lengths early but ended up first at the wire.