Posted on Thu, Apr. 29, 2004

Zito's crusade is to stop the slaughter of horses

Miami Herald

Nick Zito's dad was a New York policeman who sometimes chauffeured Mayor Robert Wagner, but Pop never had an odder ride than Nick's right now. Nick, 56, started the winter pointing three colts for the Kentucky Derby and still has two of them, favored The Cliff's Edge and 50-1 Birdstone. And even that isn't enough for Nick and his wife Kim, who spend their ``spare'' time in a crusade to save horses from being slaughtered for food worldwide.

Nick and Kim have known for some time that thousands of horses are being killed annually, many in the United States and Canada. They were additionally shocked to learn that 1986 Derby champion Ferdinand died in a Japanese slaughterhouse after failing at stud. Now the Zitos have joined Bo Derek, Sir Paul McCartney and literally hundreds of humanitarian organizations to put an end to this cruelty. There ought to be a law, and that's what they are pushing for.

This is certainly not to compare in any way the importance of the horses' deaths with those of American soldiers in the Middle East. However, unlike the conflict in Iraq, it is something all those humane groups hope they can do something about.

As for anything to do with this Derby, it is a matter of deep concern here that old Derby champions are among the animals whose lives may be at stake in countries trying to use them as stallions - Alysheba in Saudi Arabia, Sea Hero in Turkey, Charismatic and War Emblem in Japan, and, yes, Zito's own '91 Derby king, Strike the Gold, in Turkey.

Zito only nodded numbly when it came up Wednesday morning at his Barn 36 door. It was 8 a.m., and he had been up four hours already. He was noticeably weary from his double burden, although it would be gilding the lily to declare Zito is taken up with the horse-protection crusade in the middle of a frantic week of preparations for the Derby.


Zito is a good man. I believe you can say the impact of his leadership on the horse-protection side might depend on the fame he continues to build as a Derby specialist. He won with Go for Gin in '94 after breaking through with Strike the Gold. He holds the Derby holy, and if he doesn't have a horse running in it, as he hasn't since A.P. Valentine came in seventh in '01, he just doesn't come around.

He is managing the numbers real nicely now. At Florida's Gulfstream Park and Palm Meadows training track in March, he was preparing three colts for this week. He got two of them here. Big score right there.

Zito's No. 1 back then was Eurosilver, but some bad glands sidelined him.

The next was Birdstone, whose health was so iffy he hasn't run in six weeks and has been proclaimed a 50-1 shot for the big Saturday.

``My third horse'' was what Zito called The Cliff's Edge. He drew the No. 11 post position and morning-line favoritism of 4-1 here after catching Lion Heart and winning Keeneland's Blue Grass.

``The Cliff's Edge was meant to be in this race,'' Zito said flatly, and if he doesn't know, who does?


Zito called the 50-1 advance odds on Birdstone ``insane.'' No doubt bettors will lop a lot of points off those odds.

Moreover, neither Zito has fear of the 11 post position The Cliff's Edge drew, more or less in the middle of the starting field. ``The jock, Shane Sellers, has won a lot of races from that post,'' Kim Zito pointed out.

And if it rains on the Derby, as weathermen threaten? ``You can't tell God, `Don't let it rain,' '' Zito said. ``You can't put a dome on the track.'' It's a game not played at all anymore for the horses Zito and his Kim learned were being put to death. This sad conclusion has been true for racing greyhounds for centuries. It has been a better-kept secret in the thoroughbred business, partly because some of the better-off farms take pains to keep and pamper their old horses.

Maybe the million-watt light being shown on the Derby will bring some attention to the campaign to save some who might otherwise be slaughtered.

Or maybe not. A lot of this is about luck, and Zito always says, ``You can't handicap luck.''

But you can hope for it.